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Rishi Sunak to meet Xi Jinping as he strikes conciliatory tone on China

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BALI, Indonesia — Rishi Sunak will invite Xi Jinping to collaborate more closely on global challenges in the first meeting between a British prime minister and Chinese president in nearly five years.

Sunak and Xi will hold a bilateral meeting Wednesday on the margins of the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali.

Ahead of the meeting — confirmed only 24 hours before it was due to take place — Downing Street insisted it was “clear-eyed in how we approach our relationship with China.”

The prime minister’s spokesman said there was a need “for China and the U.K. to establish a frank and constructive relationship,” but stressed that “the challenges posed by China are systemic” and “long-term.”

The two leaders are likely to discuss the war in Ukraine, energy security and climate change among other issues, No. 10 said.

Theresa May was the last prime minister to meet Xi, during a visit to Beijing in January 2018, at a time when Downing Street was still referring to the “golden era” of relations supposedly ushered in by David Cameron and George Osborne.

U.K.-China relations have worsened in the wake of China’s crackdown on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, the oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority of Xinjiang province, and concerns about the security implications of allowing Chinese companies to build critical national infrastructure in the U.K.

News of the meeting comes after Sunak softened his language on China and suggested he was abandoning plans to declare the country a “threat” as part of a major review of British foreign policy.

In response to questioning from POLITICO during the trip, Sunak described China as “a systemic challenge” but stressed that dialogue with Beijing was essential to tackling global challenges such as climate change.

Speaking to Sky News Tuesday, the PM said: “I think our approach to China is one that is very similar to our allies, whether that’s America, Australia and Canada — all countries that I’m talking about exactly this issue with while we’re here at the G20 summit.”

Sunak’s spokesman said Tuesday that the prime minister would “obviously raise the human rights record with President Xi” at the meeting.

But he added: “Equally, none of the issues that we are discussing at the G20 — be it the global economy, Ukraine, climate change, global health — none of them can be addressed without coordinated action by the world’s major economies, and of course that includes China.”

Xi has already held bilateral talks with various leaders during the summit | Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Xi has already held bilateral talks with U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese among other leaders during the summit.

In addition to the talks with Xi, Sunak will also hold meetings with Biden, Albanese, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader and co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, warned that the U.K. was “drifting into appeasement” with Xi.

“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. “They’re a threat to our values, they’re a threat to economic stability.”

Bob Seely, another Tory MP and member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, added: “We need to talk to nations, especially those that may challenge our values and stability, but it is dangerous to normalize relations when they are not normal.”

But Alicia Kearns, chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee and a member of the China Research Group, welcomed Sunak’s meeting with Xi. “It is important they meet to prevent miscalculations,” she said. “We cannot simply cut off China, we must work to create the space for dialogue, challenge and cooperation.”

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