Rishi Sunak will meet the Chinese president on Wednesday after declaring that his country poses a “systemic challenge” to the values and interests of the UK.
Mr Sunak will become the first prime minister to meet Xi Jinping face to face in almost five years when he meets him at the G20 summit in Indonesia.
Earlier today, he told Sky News’ political editor Beth Rigby that China “represents the single biggest straight threat to our economic security”.
Yet it was “indisputable” that the country was a big part of the global economy, he said, adding: “If we want to solve big global challenges like public health, like Russia and Ukraine, fixing the global economy or indeed climate change, it’s important to have a dialogue and to engage with China as part of solving those challenges.”
Speaking before the bilateral meeting, Mr Sunak said his approach would be “very similar to our allies”, such as the US. President Joe Biden met Mr Xi on Monday.
Mr Sunak added: “I think it’s important that we engage with people to try and tackle some of these shared challenges.
“And I’m here to talk to people, and that’s what I hope is possible.”
The prime minister toughened his stance on China during the summer Tory leadership election after being accused by Liz Truss’s team of cosying up to the country when he was chancellor.
He accused Beijing of “stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities” while “propping up Putin’s fascist invasion of Ukraine”, bullying Taiwan and contravening the human rights of the Uyghurs and people in Hong Kong, as well as suppressing their currency to “continually rig the global economy in their favour”.
Some backbenchers still hold his previous efforts to sure economic deals with China against him in light of the country’s major human rights violations and its sanctions against numerous Tory MPs for speaking out about them.
Downing Street insisted Mr Sunak would be “frank” during the meeting and raise the human rights record.
But earlier on Tuesday, the PM held a meeting with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and did not raise the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Number 10 claimed Mr Sunak “didn’t raise specific individual cases” as “that’s not normally the norm in these sorts of things”, and that the pair had a “fairly lengthy discussion” on social reforms, women’s rights and civil liberties.
But US President Joe Biden raised the murder with the crown prince in July, as did former Prime Minister Theresa May in the months after the Washington Post commentator’s his death.
‘Drifting into appeasement’
Alicia Kearns, the Tory chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, welcomed the meeting with President Xi, saying: “It is important they meet to prevent miscalculations. We cannot simply cut off China, we must work to create the space for dialogue, challenge and cooperation.”
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who supports a more hawish stance on China and is sanctioned himself, said he was worried Mr Sunak would be perceived as weak by Mr Xi “because it now looks like we’re drifting into appeasement with China, which is a disaster”.
He added: “They’re a threat to our values, they’re a threat to economic stability, they’re a threat to us because of their failure to cooperate with the WHO early on that led to Covid spreading all over the world.
“They only understand strength and strength of purpose. Xi Jinping will see him as a weak leader and that’s how Xi Jinping behaves.”