British Prime Minister David Cameron had some bad luck in the timing of his China visit. Scheduled ahead of the award ceremony for Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo in Oslo, the trip was likely to raise unwelcome interest in what he would say about human rights in China. But at the same time, having declared that the primary function of British diplomacy is to be trade promotion, Cameron also went on his first official visit to China as Prime Minister with a delegation of almost 50 top business people. For observers, the key question as he set foot in China was how he was going to balance trade and human rights.
In the end, he did it by the simple expedient of choosing the right time and place. His meetings with officials, including Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, were largely focused on how the UK and China can work together better on investment, technology transfer, and helping British companies get a better market share in the potentially huge domestic market in the People's Republic. He would have been well aware of the USD 20 billion of deals that Chinese President Hu Jintao reportedly signed in France only a week before. The UK exports three times as much to Ireland as it does to China. Cameron declared on his first day in China that he wanted to see the value of exports increase massively over the next five years.
This is not the first time a leader of the UK has made clear such lofty intentions while in China. His predecessors made it part of their strategy to do more business in China. The issue for Cameron now is to ink in some deals that can actually be shown to create jobs and value back in the UK.
Cameron said that he stood by the policy of the previous Labour government in their constructive engagement with China. And that also means being able to talk about more contentious, difficult issues. Tony Blair was famously light on his tackling of the Chinese government about their own agreements to abide by international conventions. But Cameron surprised many by making a strong statement for more open government and democracy when talking to students in Beijing. In this, he was taking a leaf from the book of the Americans who usually chose to deal with the public airing of more difficult issues in an academic environment.
Should it be the business of a leader of a foreign country to have to discuss these issues when visiting another country? Perhaps that is not the right way to put the question. Cameron showed some awareness of the complex transition that China is currently undergoing: a stronger rule of law, more clarity to the status of civil society, more openness and transparency in governance, and greater freedom of expression - things that are all being discussed by the Chinese government and the Communist Party elite as they undergo a leadership transition.
China is happy to admit that it has enjoyed over three decades of growth because of a largely peaceful international environment, and the increased stability from a rules-based international trading and economic system. Foreign companies too should be concerned about rule of law, contracts, intellectual property protection, labour rights, and the social and economic stability of China. They have made a big commitment here. As stakeholders in that whole process, Cameron, on behalf of the UK, needed to stress that the relationship is not all about trade, however important that is.
The problem for the UK now is how to define a role and how to find the right way to talk to China, a country that has seen its economy explode over the last decade. The UK accounts for a very small amount of Chinese trade. Geopolitically, it is also a very marginal player for China, except when it works with the US or EU. What China looks for in the UK is becoming increasingly specialised. Cameron didn't manage to solve the questions of this more focussed, nuanced relationship - at least not on his first trip. But as he made clear, it is on his mind. And this is a promising first step in the new relationship between the British government and the leaders, and people, of China.