China wants the UK to apologise for a meeting between Prime Minister David Cameron and the Dalai Lama last year. Business leaders say the freeze in relations between the countries in the wake of the meeting could cost the UK billions of pounds of Chinese investment. VoR’s Tom Spender reports.

China expects “concrete measures” from the UK to repair its relations with China.

That’s what a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters in Beijing today – although she did not specify what those measures should be.

The Chinese leadership is angry with Prime Minister David Cameron over his meeting with the Dalai Lama in London a year ago.

Shi Yinhong is Professor of International Relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

“He could emphasise that Britain recognises China’s sovereignty and administrative control over Tibet and will not receive the Dalai Lama again, but of course maybe he doesn’t want to say this because it would cause a domestic political problem in Britain.”

Cameron warned

After German chancellor Angela Merkel and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy met the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader in 2007 and 2009, the Chinese reaction prompted both countries to issue joint statements.

But some say Cameron could face a backlash if he is thought to be caving into the Chinese.

Alistair Currie is a spokesman for Free Tibet, which campaigns for Tibetans’ right to self-determination.

“UK Tibet policy shouldn’t be set in Beijing or in the boardrooms of companies that think they can profit from a relationship with China. And it’s not just Tibet support groups saying that – a poll that Free Tibet commissioned found that three-quarters of people in Britain think that protecting human rights in Tibet is just as important as trade relations with China.

“What we have is a very good situation in that David Cameron met the Dalai Lama, which in some ways is a courageous thing to do and I think people respect him for that. But if there is a reversal of that position, if an apology is issued, what you’ll find is essentially that the UK is giving in to China’s bullying. And when you give in to a bully, you pay the price for that.”

It will just blow over

Professor Shi says the British government has another option – just wait for the storm to blow over.

“If Cameron doesn’t do anything new in negative terms, maybe it is already near to the end of the cold relations between Beijing and London. One year is generally quite long.”

Meanwhile, a swathe of high-level meetings between the two countries have been cancelled, including a visit by Cameron to China last autumn and a visit by China’s new premier Li Keqiang this year.

Cameron also abandoned a trip to China last month after Beijing indicated that he was unlikely to be granted meetings with senior figures. French President Francois Hollande, however, was greeted with a 21-gun salute.

British business fears

British business leaders fear the freeze could cost the UK billions of pounds in Chinese investment, in particular into big infrastructure projects such as the High Speed 2 rail network.

However, China’s sovereign wealth fund last year bought a 10 per cent stake in Heathrow airport, and 8.7 per cent of Thames Water.

Professor Shi says: “Some indirect negative effect will [take place] because if there is no summit, no big delegations and exchange visit, maybe the investment would not go as high as otherwise. I don’t believe there would be any direct negative effect upon Chinese investment in Britain,” he said.

Martin Jacqes, author of the book ‘When China Rules the World’, says the British government should show China more respect.

“You have to decide what the priorities are in your relationship with China. Of course if you want to make your views clear on human rights there are ways of doing it but there are also ways of not doing it if you don’t want to offend the Chinese. We need to get real about China and show it some respect as well.”

China “unimpressed” with Cameron

Jakes says Britain has handled its relationship with China ineptly.

“My impression is the Chinese have been very unimpressed with the Cameron government. They just haven’t stepped up to the plate when it comes to relations with China. The way to deal with China is to build up, over time, a very good set of personal relations.” he said.

“I think it all bespeaks a lack of professionalism, a lack of commitment, a lack of identification of just how important China is going to be and what strategy you need to be successful in that context.”

Downing Street says it regards Tibet as part of China. A spokesman said it was in both counties’ interests to manage their differences with respect.

David Cameron is now expected to travel to China in the autumn.