Will David Cameron’s Ties With China Compromise His Return As Foreign Secretary?
David Cameron's reentry into British politics as the UK's new foreign minister is being lauded by Chinese state media as a significant boost for Sino-UK relations. There is a good reason that Beijing is happy to see the former Prime Minister.
LONDON — The Chinese newspaper Global Times is not exactly an independent press outlet: it is run directly by President Xi Jinping's Communist Party, publishing in multiple languages around the world.
With the surprise announcement this week of the return to government of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the Global Times was quick to push out an opinion piece that gushed that Cameron's arrival to head up the Foreign Office could "revitalize the China-UK relationship."
On one level, Cameron's appointment has drawn attention to his approach to China as Prime Minister, before resigning in the wake of the Brexit vote. Under his premiership, the so-called "golden era" of Sino-UK relations flourished, epitomized in memorable images of Cameron sharing a beer with President Xi during his 2015 state visit to Britain.
Those warm UK-China relations have chilled in the intervening years, amidst increasing reports of Beijing’s espionage activities in the West. The current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has labeled Cameron's past policies toward China as "naive" in his initial major foreign policy address after assuming office. "The so-called 'golden era' is over, along with the naive idea that trade would lead to social and political reform," Sunak stated.
But now, with Beijing hoping that Cameron brings back the ‘golden era,’ others are questioning what the former prime minister has been doing in China in the intervening years. Since leaving office in 2016, Cameron has faced scrutiny regarding his involvement in a China-funded port in Sri Lanka, raising worries about Beijing's expanding influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
A $1.5 billion investment fund
The former Prime Minister has also assumed the position of vice-chair in a $1.5 billion China-UK investment fund, which has encountered challenges in recent years due to escalating tensions between the nations.
His lobbying endeavors have also gained attention when it was revealed that he traveled to the UAE to promote investment in the Colombo Port City project, a segment of President Xi's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
In July, the UK’s parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC) expressed concerns about whether Cameron's role was "partially orchestrated by the Chinese state to bolster Chinese investment and the broader China brand's credibility." The Committee also used this evidence to support the claim that China had infiltrated the U.K. economy and criticized the British government for failing to respond to the Chinese threat.
Cameron’s Chinese business ties after leaving office recall former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder’s career after public service, where he signed up to work for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Schröder took on high-paying roles for Russian state-owned energy companies, including Nord Stream AG, Rosneft, and Gazprom. Since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the former German leader has faced increasing criticism for his policies towards Putin's government, his work for Russian state-owned companies, and his lobbying on behalf of Russia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and David Cameron sharing a beer at a pub in Britain in 2015
Another golden age?
David Alton, a member of the U.K. House of Lords, who is known for his hard-line stance against China, told RFA Cantonese that the warnings issued by the ISC against Cameron were troubling, and called into question his integrity and impartiality.
There are still big questions about Cameron’s relationship with China and his personal finances.
“It is unfortunate that the Prime Minister Sunak and the Home Secretary James Cleverly have turned their backs on the Chinese Communist Party’s political and human rights abuses against Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Uyghur people and have instead increased their economic dependence on China, which does not bode well,” said Alton.
“I hope Cameron recognizes the disasters and mistakes of the ‘golden age’ of Britain and China, but I have never heard of him changing his position, quite the opposite.”
Sam Goodman, director of policy and advocacy at Hong Kong Watch, a U.K-based human rights organization, also raised his concerns over Cameron.
“There are still big questions about Cameron’s relationship with China and his personal finances,” Goodman told RFA Cantonese. “Is he receiving money directly from the Chinese government? That remains a question. And, of course, what does this mean for British foreign policy? He is now the Foreign Secretary, the most senior diplomat in the U.K., and will be in charge of U.K.-China relations.”
Still, Cameron returns in a very different context, both inside and outside the British government. Dr. Ding Hongliang, a lecturer of comparative politics at the University of Reading, told BBC China that although Sunak did appoint Cameron, who is notably “pro-Chinese”, there are still “hawks on China in the cabinet” such as Tom Tugendhat, the Minister of State for Security, and James Cleverly, who are still “quite tough on China.”
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