Britain's Top Diplomat Visits China for the First Time in 5 Years With Hopes of Stabilizing Ties

BEIJING (AP) -- Britain's top diplomat, James Cleverly, began a long-awaited visit to China on Wednesday as the two countries attempt to stabilize their ties that have frayed badly in recent years.

The trip is the first by a U.K. foreign secretary to China in more than five years, underscoring the downturn in relations over Beijing's curbing of civil liberties in Hong Kong, a former British colony, abuses against Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, China's support for Russia and Britain's close security ties with the United States.

Cleverly met first with Vice President Han Zheng, who said the visit will "further promote the sound and stable development of bilateral relations."

The British official said it was important to "avoid misunderstandings" in relations between the U.K. and China.

"It is important that countries like ours meet and speak face to face on regular occasions to enhance understanding, to avoid misunderstanding and to address the challenges and differences of opinion that all countries have in bilateral relations," Cleverly said after his meeting with Zheng.

He said he had "a number of conversations with senior representatives of the Chinese government and I have raised human rights in every single one of those meetings, and I will continue to do so."

Cleverly will meet later Wednesday his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, who is both the ruling Communist Party's top official for foreign affairs and recently resumed his former post as foreign minister after the still-unexplained disappearance of his predecessor, Qin Gang.

Cleverly has said he would raise issues such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and is expected to stress that Chinese influence comes with responsibility on the global stage -- including helping end Russia's invasion of Ukraine and diffusing geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is aiming to pursue a nuanced, non-confrontational approach to relations with Beijing. He has described China as a growing "systemic challenge" to Britain's values and interests, but he has also stressed the need to maintain a relationship with the Asian superpower.

Asked about Cleverly's agenda at a daily briefing Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that, as two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and major economies, China and Britain should "shoulder the common responsibility of promoting world peace, stability and development."

He added, however, that "issues related to Hong Kong and Xinjiang are purely China's internal affairs, and no country should interfere."

The visit is not expected to yield any major tangible results due in part to the countries' conflicting objectives, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.

"The fact that they are talking is a positive," Tsang said. "We need to engage in conversation with China, we need to have effective communication channels with China -- even if we don't agree on anything -- because China does matter."