A bilateral meeting between the UK and China at the G20 summit – billed as the first such talks between the countries in five years – has been cancelled because of emergency meetings among world leaders in the aftermath of a missile strike in Nato-member Poland near the border with Ukraine.
Downing Street said there were “movements with timings on both sides” that led to the cancellation of the meeting, but said Sunak had wanted it to go ahead. “The prime minister obviously thinks it is still important to have that conversation with President Xi,” his spokesperson said.
It means a British prime minister has not spoken to the Chinese president by phone for more than 18 months and not had a face to face meeting since early 2018. Theresa May visited China for a three-day trade visit in January 2018 and Boris Johnson spoke to Xi during the Covid pandemic in March 2021.
Sunak is understood to have been keen for the meeting to take place. Officials suggested the talks would have had broad aims to find areas where the UK and China could start to make progress, including on energy security and the climate crisis, as well as encouraging Beijing to play a more active role on Russia and Ukraine.
Downing Street said a wave of Russian missile attacks on Ukraine on Tuesday was a further demonstration “of contempt Russia has for the international order”. But it said the facts were “still being established” about what happened with the missile in Poland.
Instead, Sunak and the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, will speak to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in the mid-afternoon UK time. It comes after the US president, Joe Biden, said the missile that landed in Poland, killing two people, was unlikely to have been fired from Russia because of its trajectory.
Among those to have had Chinese sanctions imposed upon them are Sunak’s security minister, Tom Tugendhat, the science minister Nus Ghani, the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Alicia Kearns.
Duncan Smith said the change of approach was “drifting into appeasement” and Xi would take the rapprochement as a sign of weakness. “I am worried that the present prime minister, when he meets Xi Jinping, will be perceived as weak because it now looks like we’re drifting into appeasement with China, which is a disaster as it was in the 1930s and so it will be now,” he said.
Bob Seely, a Tory MP and member of the Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China, said: “Of course we need to talk to nations, especially those that may challenge our values and stability, but it is dangerous to normalise relations when they are not normal. We need to have an honest conversation.”
The former minister Tim Loughton, who is also under sanctions imposed by China, said Sunak must put the treatment of the seven MPs “at the top of his agenda” and added: “China may be a long way off being our ally but it helps no one if they carry on acting as an enemy of the west.”
In a clip filmed with Trudeau, Sunak said they were both “particularly disturbed by the continued barbaric activity of Russia in bombarding the Ukrainian people in their civilian infrastructure. We spoke to the foreign minister of Ukraine earlier today to express our sympathies about that and continue to offer support to Ukraine.”
The prime minister was woken up at 5am Balinese time to be briefed on the incident in Poland, speaking shortly afterwards to his defence and foreign secretaries and to Poland’s president, Andrezj Duda, at about 7pm.
Sunak also held a bilateral meeting with Biden, the first time the pair have formally met. No 10 said that, unusually, they did not discuss a US-UK trade deal, a further hint that Sunak is taking a slower approach to trade having already hinted he wants thoroughly to review work on the trade deal with India.
Both Biden and Sunak spoke about the global economic challenges as well as Biden saying he was keen to see progress on the Northern Ireland protocol. Biden is understood to have said he believed the prime minister also wanted to see a resolution with the EU as soon as possible.
Sunak is scheduled to go ahead with meetings on Wednesday with the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese
Source: The Guardian