The United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has urged China to be more transparent about what he described as the “biggest military build-up in peacetime history”, warning secrecy over its military activities carried the risk of a “tragic miscalculation”.
Cleverly devoted his entire keynote speech at a Mansion House banquet in London to China, sketching out his views on a relationship that has long left behind the so-called “golden era” under former Prime Minister David Cameron.
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Cleverly noted that between 2014 and 2018, China launched new warships exceeding the combined tonnage of the British Royal Navy’s entire active fleet and that it was establishing military bases in the South China Sea as well as beyond.
He urged China to be more open about the “doctrine and intent behind its military expansion”.
“Transparency is surely in everyone’s interests and secrecy can only increase the risk of tragic miscalculation,” he said.
He also warned of the potential “catastrophic” effects of any conflict over Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own.
“No country could shield itself from the repercussions. Distance would offer no protection from this catastrophic blow to the global economy – and least China’s most of all. I shudder to contemplate the human and financial ruin that would follow,” he said.
“It’s essential that no party takes unilateral action to change the status quo.”
China has not ruled out the use of force to secure unification and this month conducted a series of war games after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen met with House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy on a stopover in the United States.
Beijing views Tsai, who was first elected in 2016, as a “separatist” who wants “independence”. She says it should be for the people of Taiwan to decide their future.
Cleverly also expressed “revulsion” at China’s treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang province, where the United Nations said last year that Beijing may have committed crimes against humanity.
“We are not going to let what [ha]s happened in Xinjiang drop or be brushed aside,” he said, without elaborating.
The speech also touched on China’s response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with Cleverly reminding Beijing – one of five veto-wielding members of the Security Council – of the laws and obligations it entered into when it joined the United Nations.
“Peaceful co-existence has to begin with respecting fundamental laws and institutions, including the UN Charter, which protects every country against invasion,” he said.
The speech also included recognition of the “depth and complexity” of China’s history and civilisation as well as the country’s success in lifting 800 million people out of poverty over the past 45 years.
Cleverly stressed there could be no new Cold War and that countries had to work with China to make progress on some of the biggest challenges facing the world.
The UK would be doubling funding for “China capabilities” in the government and planned to build a new UK Embassy in Beijing, with China’s approval, he added.
“We do not live in a miserable zero-sum world: their gain is our gain,” he said. “We must face the inescapable reality that no significant global problem – from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic instability to nuclear proliferation – can be solved without China.”