The British government and the royal family, on its behalf, are going all out to welcome President Xi Jinping of China on his state visit this week. But Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, has chosen not to attend the official banquet in Xi’s honor, a white-tie affair at Buckingham Palace. The prince has not discussed his decision to skip the banquet on Tuesday night, but he is known to be close to the Dalai Lama and has previously snubbed other events involving China. While Prince Charles will meet Xi and his wife privately on Tuesday morning on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II and meet them again privately in the afternoon, his stance is a sharp and presumably intended contrast to the aggressively trade-oriented position that Prime Minister David Cameron and especially his chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, have taken toward China. Amid all the expected pageantry that Britain does so well, the prince’s quiet protest is emblematic of an uneasy strain running through Britain, Germany and much of the European Union: how to balance vital commercial interests with a rising China with expressing concerns about human rights, the rule of law, individual freedoms and democracy, which China takes as meddling in domestic matters. While there will be demonstrations targeting Xi from human rights groups, it is highly unlikely that he will face any public criticism from British officials. Osborne in particular has been criticized widely in the British news media and among unidentified diplomats as “kowtowing” to China and softening criticism of human rights issues there.
The Cameron government has made it clear that Britain’s relationship with China is foremost about markets and trade and quiet diplomacy. After Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in 2012, China responded with a deep freeze in relations, and since then, Cameron and Osborne have labored to restore warmer ties. Cameron has even named one of China’s top businessmen Jack Ma, the Alibaba founder, as an official adviser on business, Downing Street said Monday. Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, told reporters that the two would meet later Monday, only hours before Xi arrived in Britain. In an unusual written interview published on the night before the trip, Xi told Reuters: “The UK has stated that it will be the Western country that is most open to China. This is a visionary and strategic choice that fully meets Britain’s own long-term interest.” Washington has been troubled by the seemingly uncritical approach to China and the embrace of Chinese technology by its closest ally, but American criticism so far has been limited to sniping “on background” by unnamed diplomats. For example, when Osborne, over objections from the Foreign Office, pushed Cameron into making Britain the first Western country to apply for membership in China’s new Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, an unnamed Washington official complained of Britain’s “constant accommodation” of China, even as the Chinese economy was slowing down. Privately, there were harsher conversations, but the American effort to block membership in the bank was considered poorly handled, even in Washington. Cameron’s office has defended this week’s state visit, saying Monday that no topic was off limits, including “human rights and cybersecurity.” MsBower said: “By developing a strong and engaged approach based on a constructive engagement we are able to raise issues on which we differ frankly, and to do so with mutual respect. We will take this approach this week, and nothing is off the table.” Cameron and crucial cabinet ministers will hold talks with Xi and Chinese officials on Wednesday that will focus on energy and trade, to be followed by a news conference, but British officials on Monday could not confirm that Xi would attend or take questions from British journalists at any stage.
There will be further private talks, focusing more on foreign policy, over dinner on Thursday at the prime minister’s official country residence, Chequers. The visit is expected to be marked by the signing of major contracts or commitments for China to invest in Britain’s nuclear-power industry and even for the Chinese to build a nuclear power plant in Essex. The Chinese would be minority shareholders in both deals and would supply the design for the Essex plant. That has raised concerns over cybersecurity and energy independence, as well as doubts about relatively untested Chinese nuclear technology, even if it is built under British regulation. Britain has increased its exports to China from £7.3 billion, or $11.3 billion, in 2010 to £15.9 billion in 2014, an average annual growth rate of a little over 20 percent, said Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, in a report on British foreign policy published Monday. But that still accounted for only 3.2 percent of total British exports in 2014, he noted, while 6.6 percent of Germany’s exports went to China.