OPINION - Does James Cleverly know why he’s in China?

 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

I have a theory. It’s probably not correct but I’m moonlighting as comment editor this week and there’s no time to check. The idea is that all prime ministers elevated from one of the great offices of state want to keep running that department from Number 10.

So Boris Johnson tried to be his own foreign secretary, Theresa May her own home secretary and Gordon Brown his own chancellor. Liz Truss is, as ever, uncategorisable. Rishi Sunak, for his part, gives the impression of a man who enjoys nothing less than retiring to the upstairs flat with a can of coke and a Treasury red book, rather than obsessing over foreign affairs.

And already I’m losing confidence in this theory, recalling that Sunak made great hay early on in his premiership with the Windsor Framework and the Aukus deal. He’ll no doubt get some nice pictures taken at the upcoming G20 in New Delhi and the UN General Assembly in New York.

So perhaps Sunak’s decision to send James Cleverly to China, rather than visiting himself, says more about Britain’s approach towards the world’s second-largest economy.

The prime minister can’t be everywhere, of course. But that makes wherever he chooses to be a useful insight into his priorities. And it will not have escaped Beijing’s attention that while Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron have both visited in the last year, Sunak sent a deputy.

Dr Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, has written a fascinating piece in today’s paper, on how Britain’s China policy is essentially a messy compromise. The Government wants to be seen to raise human rights issues, not least the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of Uyghurs, as well as the collapse of democracy in Hong Kong and threats to Taiwan.

Ties have been further strained by the UK offering visas to British National (Overseas) citizens and their close family members as well as Sunak’s statement earlier this year that China “poses the biggest challenge of our age to global security and prosperity.”

At the same time, the prime minister still hopes to do business with the Chinese. Huawei may be out of our 5G network, but we’re not as gung-ho on ‘decoupling’ or ‘derisking’ as the Americans.

Ultimately, Sunak wants to address UK-China relations without too many people noticing. And that’s because he has a party management problem. The Conservative benches are packed with China hawks who would rather Britain have nothing to do with the country.

And so his dispatching of Cleverly appears to be an attempt to find a middle way in managing ties with the Middle Kingdom. It may end up pleasing no one.

In the comment pages, Guto Harri says Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair... so what’s the point of getting rid of Rishi Sunak? While Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley warns that even as the force changes, we will see more ghastly cases coming to light.

And finally, something strange is happening. An incredible opening day of the US Open with all seven Brits winning without dropping a set.

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