Sino-British relations threatened by human rights dialogue cancellation

The relationship between the UK and China has been called into question, after it was announced that the eastern nation had cancelled a round table with Britain about human rights. Leaders had been due to discuss the issue tomorrow (April 16th).

This move is being considered something of a step backwards, as the British prime minister David Cameron only organised the meeting’s reinauguration on a visit to China at the end of last year. Before this, such a bilateral human rights dialogue had been frozen as a result of the dispute involving Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, following Mr Cameron’s meeting with him in 2012.

It had been hoped the renewed talks would foster a closer relationship between the two countries, helping to consolidate trade and business links between Britain and China – arguably vitally important as the European bloc continues to address its economic recovery.

Mr Cameron himself described reestablishing the round table discussions as an important achievement of his trip to Beijing last year.

However, while speculation is mounting as to why exactly China decided to cancel the session, it is being reported this may be as a result of a recent report into human rights, in which Britain named China a “country of concern” due to heightened restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly witnessed last year. It also spoke of the use of “forcible suppression” regarding the conflict in Tibet and Xinjiang.

A spokesperson for the foreign office was reported as having said the government is “disappointed” that the Chinese had unilaterally called off the meeting. However, they went on to say that it was not for them to comment as to why exactly this had happened.

Nevertheless, it is believed that the authorities are in conversation concerning a rescheduling of the round table, after a spokesperson for No 10 Downing Street labelled such a meeting taking place as “essential”, in terms of not only opening a dialogue about human rights, but also of Sino-British relations in a wider context.

Mutually beneficial relationship

However, it is not just the British, who are looking to bolster exports and drive the economy, who would be set to benefit from such a relationship.

Reports suggested that Chinese exports and imports unexpectedly fell sharply last month. According to official figures, exports declined by 6.6 per cent when compared to the same period in 2012, while imports fell by as much as 11.3 per cent year-on-year.

This amounts to the second successive negative month for Chinese exports, after they declined by 18.1 per cent in February – the first time since 2009 that this has happened for two months in a row – suggesting China should be focusing on ways to mend its export market.

Meanwhile, the UK considers overseas markets as a valuable resource as it continues to drive its economic recovery, with the world’s second largest economy arguably high up on its list of priorities.

Rather aptly, last week in the UK was in fact the UK Trade & Investment’s fifth Export Week – an awareness event that saw 3,000 companies taking part in a bid to highlight the importance of exporting. With China in desperate need of more imports and the UK needing to promote its exporting activity, close business ties between the countries undoubtedly present opportunities for both sides.

However, as touched upon earlier, this isn’t the first time that relations between China and Britain have come under strain.

For example, not too long after Mr Cameron’s high-profile visit to Beijing last December, the Telegraph reported how senior Chinese officials were disappointed by the British government’s actions following a visit by the Royal Navy’s most senior officer Admiral George Zambellas to Japan. This promoted a divide between London and Beijing, as China and Japan remained embroiled in a standoff over islands in the East China sea.

Meanwhile, an editorial in China’s Global Times in December 2013 labelled the UK as “just an old European country apt for travel and study”, which was naturally seen as less than complimentary and picked up by western media.

One thing’s for sure – with global business competition more fierce now than it has ever been before, there has arguably never been a better time for economic leaders to do their utmost to put conflicts to one side and promote international relations, for business purposes if nothing else.

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