5 times Britain’s David Cameron bigged up China

LONDON — Well, this is awkward.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron is getting ready to show Conservative MPs he’s a born-again China hawk on the day his government accuses Beijing-sponsored actors of carrying out cyber attacks on British democracy.

The top diplomat will be grilled by the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives in a pre-planned session Monday evening. But he may face tricky questions over his previous enthusiastic bids to bolster ties between Britain and China.

POLITICO rounded up five occasions the former prime minister-turned-foreign secretary was gung-ho about closer relations between Beijing and London. It’s a list Cameron may want to read through his fingers.

1) Golden error?

It feels like a lifetime ago now, but the defining phrase for British-Chinese relations during Cameron’s time as prime minister was a “Golden Era.”

Ahead of a visit to Beijing in 2013, Cameron promised the U.K. would be the country’s strongest advocate in the West based on a “dialogue of mutual respect and understanding.”

Two years later, Cameron told state-run propaganda outlet China Central Television that the U.K. would benefit from “investment into our infrastructure” from a closer relationship while China would have access to, er, “a leading member of the EU.”

How did that work out again?

2) A friendly pint with Xi Jinping

It doesn’t get more “Golden Era” than this.

The height of U.K-China good cheer, Cameron hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for a £91,000 state visit to the U.K. in October 2015. That involved a banquet in Xi’s honor, hosted by the late Queen Elizabeth II, and a two-night stay in Buckingham Palace. Nice work if you can get it.

Cameron and Xi even found time to enjoy the sights, including, er, a pint of beer at the Plough Inn pub near Chequers, the prime minister’s country house. In one of the weirdest photos of all time, the Chinese strongman and British PM posed for a selfie with then Manchester City football player Sergio Agüero.

3) Huawei or the high way

Cameron’s push for Chinese investment in U.K. infrastructure would later come back to bite the British government.

Chinese tech company Huawei was given the green-light to oversee huge parts of the U.K.’s telecoms framework despite concerns from across the globe.

Cameron played down the security threats at the time, telling Channel 4 News in 2013: “I think we’re one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of the action we’re taking on cyber-security.”

Amid a national security outcry from Tory China hawks, Huawei equipment was later banned from vital infrastructure by the government in 2020, leaving British telecoms companies with the logistical nightmare of replacing the technology. Cheers Dave!

4) Chinese whispers

Cameron didn’t solely spend his life after Downing Street in a pricey shepherd’s hut penning his memoir.

He was also enlisted to drum up foreign investment in the Colombo Port City project, a multibillion-dollar Sri Lankan plan to build a metropolis in the Indo-Pacific. A major part of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, critics fear it could one day act as a Chinese military outpost.

The former PM spoke at two glitzy investment events in the Middle East last September, also visiting the project in person last year. Cameron’s spokesperson said he had had no direct contact with either the Chinese government or the Chinese firm involved.

Cameron also held a private post-government meeting and dinner with Xi way back in January 2018 while visiting Beijing, discussing plans for a U.K.-China Fund, which was ultimately wound up.

5) Once more with feeling

Cameron has taken a markedly tougher attitude towards China as foreign secretary — but he’s not gone far enough for some Tory critics.

The foreign secretary — drafted into Rishi Sunak’s government from the political wildnerness late last year — told the BBC his priority in Downing Street “was for Britain to grow again, trade again, with exports to help our businesses around the world.” And China, he made clear, plays a role in this.

Engagement with Beijing is, he argued, “one part of the approach we need to take” in solving global problems like climate change.

Just don’t mention China’s coal-fired power plants