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Cameron’s China Ties Draw Fresh Scrutiny With ‘Golden Era’ Over

Cameron’s China Ties Draw Fresh Scrutiny With ‘Golden Era’ Over
Xi Jinping and David Cameron drink beer in 2015.

David Cameron’s appointment as British foreign secretary has provoked criticism of the former premier’s warm relationship with China, a closeness that is at odds with the current skeptical stance of Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party.

Cameron famously heralded a “golden era” in relations with China when he was prime minister back in 2015, hosting President Xi Jinping on a state visit when they enjoyed a beer together and took selfies in what would later be seen as a high-point in bilateral ties.

But the British government’s relationship with Beijing has deteriorated in recent years over controversies including the suppression of civil liberties in the former British territory of Hong Kong, allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang province, and concerns over China as a security threat. In a major foreign policy speech last year, Sunak said China was a “systemic challenge to our values and interests.”

Read More: Cameron Makes Surprise UK Cabinet Comeback in Sunak Reboot (1)

Since quitting as prime minister in 2016 after he called and lost the Brexit referendum, Cameron has been involved in various China-related initiatives, including working to set up a $1 billion UK-China investment fund aimed at supporting Xi’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. He also lobbied for foreign investment for the Colombo Port City project in Sri Lanka, which is backed by China, according to reporting by Politico.

‘Foremost challenge’

“David Cameron will find Parliament has changed a lot when it comes to China,” Alicia Kearns, Tory chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview. “Relations with China are our foremost challenge and he is going to have quite a challenge getting foreign policy into the place where it needs to be going forward.”

The Foreign Office and 10 Downing Street did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his appointment on Monday. Spokespeople for Cameron weren’t immediately available, and he didn’t address China in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, upon taking his new role.

While prime minister between 2010 and 2016, Cameron oversaw an openness to Chinese investment including China taking a stake in the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. In recent years the UK has been working to squeeze China out of critical national infrastructure, such as stripping Huawei Technologies from Britain’s fifth-generation telecoms networks.

Even so, total UK-China trade has surged in recent years, from some $80 billion in 2015 under Cameron to $132 billion last year when Sunak became prime minister. James Cleverly, whom Cameron replaces at the Foreign Ministry following the cabinet reshuffle, made a visit to China in August, when he sought to repair some of the damage done to bilateral ties since their heyday under Cameron.

Cameron’s involvement in the UK-China investment fund was criticized in a report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee earlier this year. The report said it was “possible” that Cameron’s role was “in some part engineered by the Chinese state to lend credibility to Chinese investment, as well as to the broader China brand.”

Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a group that campaigns on issues relating to China, said Cameron’s appointment is likely to lead to Britain downplaying disagreements with China and seeking closer commercial ties.

“It’s hard to see who wins from the appointment except Beijing,” de Pulford said by phone. “Cameron is not respected as a strong negotiator in Beijing, he’s known as one of them, somebody who’s very willing to open up critical national infrastructure in the UK.”

Separately, the former UK premier drew controversy in 2021 over his post-government lobbying for the now defunct lender Greensill Capital, to which Cameron was an adviser and in which he held shares.

Read More: Cameron’s Shock Return Revives Scrutiny of Links With Greensill

During nearly four hours of interrogation by two parliamentary committees, Cameron confirmed he was paid a “big” salary at Greensill — far more than he earned as prime minister — but denied he was motivated by money when he bombarded his ex-colleagues with dozens of requests by text message and email to help the firm.


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