Johnson’s Global Britain Blueprint Hit by China Human Rights Row
Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, speaks during a virtual meeting in London. (Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg)

Johnson’s Global Britain Blueprint Hit by China Human Rights Row

Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted the U.K. must be ready to increase trade with China, in the face of criticism that his government is putting commercial deals ahead of security and human rights.

Setting out his principles for the U.K.’s future foreign and defense policy, Johnson told Parliament his administration would defend its values as well as its interests. He said Britain had already called out China for the treatment of its predominately Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, and had intervened to offer 3 million of Hong Kong’s people a path to becoming British citizens.

Johnson’s Global Britain Blueprint Hit by China Human Rights Row

“There is no question that China will pose a great challenge for an open society such as ours,” the prime minister told Parliament on Tuesday. “But we will also work with China where that is consistent with our values and interests, including building a stronger and positive economic relationship and in addressing climate change.”

Some of Johnson’s own Conservatives -- including former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt -- raised concerns that he wasn’t taking a strong enough line against Beijing and urged him to think again. Meanwhile, a report by U.K. lawmakers said there was “compelling evidence” that major fashion, retail, media and technology companies that do significant business in Britain were complicit in forced labor practices in Xinjiang.

Whether China appreciates Johnson’s efforts to strike a balance remains unclear. Chinese diplomats have repeatedly denounced his government over the U.K.’s efforts to support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition and ban China’s main state television network.

“We urge the U.K. to immediately stop making political maneuvers and correct its mistakes,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing last month after the U.K. communications regular revoked CGTN broadcasting license. Last week, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing summoned the U.K. ambassador, Caroline Wilson, over a commentary she wrote defending the foreign media.

China denies using forced labor in Xinjiang, explaining its policies as vocational programs to combat extremism and poverty. “Such inflammatory accusations are fabricated out of ignorance and prejudice,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the UN Human Rights Council in February.

Johnson is in a delicate position as he seeks to shape a new role for the U.K. outside the European Union, striking commercial agreements with new allies, while attempting to show the country is still a force for “good” in the world. His struggle parallels that of the EU, which is facing resistance in parliament to an investment agreement announced in December despite concerns about forced labor.

A defense blueprint for the next decade released by the Johnson government on Tuesday called for greater focus on the Indian and Pacific oceans. That included upgrades to bases in Cyprus, Germany, Gibraltar, Kenya, Oman and Singapore so forces can respond more quickly to threats.

‘Growth Markets’

The British leader’s effort to defend his record on China was dented when the HuffPost UK published a leaked recording of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab briefing an internal meeting of his officials that human rights considerations wouldn’t always trump trade needs. Restricting trade pacts to countries that meet the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights would hurt result in missing out on commerce with “growth markets,” Raab said.

The Foreign Office responded by insisting that the leaked recording from the staff meeting had been selectively edited.

“I squarely believe we ought to be trading liberally around the world,” Raab told his team. “If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.”

A spokesman for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said the minister had in fact made clear “in his full answer” that Britain always defends human rights, and highlighted examples of sanctions and action the country had taken at the UN.

“We regret that this audio has been deliberately and selectively clipped to distort the foreign secretary’s comments,” the spokesman said. “As he made crystal clear in his full answer, the U.K. always stands up for and speaks out on human rights.”

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