China’s new ambassador to Britain has called for a reset in relations between the two countries, with ties strained over criticism of Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
In his first statement since taking office on Monday, Zheng Zeguang said China and Britain needed to “tackle their differences properly”.
“Our two sides may deepen cooperation in trade, finance, innovation, people-to-people exchanges and other fields, and step up coordination on global issues such as fighting Covid-19, spurring global recovery and tackling climate change,” Zheng was quoted by an embassy statement as saying.
“These are the kind of efforts needed to ensure that China-Britain relations will deliver more benefits to our peoples and contribute still more to world peace and common development.”
The two countries have been at odds over human rights, including the introduction of the national security law in Hong Kong last year, which prompted Britain to offer British National (Overseas) passports holders in the city a chance to apply for British citizenship.
The two countries have also traded sanctions related to allegations of abuses in Xinjiang in China’s west, claims that Beijing rejects.
But China’s trade relations with Britain remain robust.
China has become Britain’s largest goods trading partner, with imports from China growing by two-thirds since the start of 2018 to £16.9 billion (US$23.9 billion) in the first quarter of this year.
Britain’s exports to China rose by 6.2 per cent to £3.9 billion year on year in the first quarter, according to Britain’s Office for National Statistics.
In a phone call with the British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing could exchange views with Britain on “sensitive issues”, but the British government needed to “respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
China is likely to be on the agenda when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other G7 leaders meet in Cornwall later this week for their annual summit.
Zeng Jinghan, a professor of China and international studies at Lancaster University, said better relations with Britain could spill over into ties with other countries.
“As a key ally of the US, if Britain supports China on some key issues, it would change the dynamic of China-US relations,” Zeng said.
“China hopes that its relations with Britain could return to the ‘golden age’ of around 2015, when Britain was the first western country to join the [China-led] Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
“If China could get such effective support, it would be really helpful in mending its ties with Europe and good for China’s whole international strategy.
“China-Britain relations are at a crossroads. It’s important for China to prevent them from deteriorating further.”