Changed stance over Dalai Lama as No 10 seeks to shift UK-China trade relations
David Cameron will distance Britain from the Dalai Lama during a trip to China next week as the price for restoring full business and diplomatic relations with Beijing. The changed stance is the result of an internal Whitehall debate on the best approach to Tibet and China that was won by the chancellor, George Osborne.
As the Free Tibet group called on the prime minister to raise the issue of human rights in Tibet, Downing Street sources said Britain has "turned a page" on the Dalai Lama and Cameron has no plans to meet him in the foreseeable future.
A No 10 source said: "This visit is forward looking. We have turned a page on that issue. It is about the future and how we want to shift UK-China relations up a gear."
The stark message came as the prime minister prepares to meet President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, who were installed in March, on a delayed visit to China next week.
The prime minister was forced to abandon a visit to China in April after Beijing indicated that the main Communist leadership were unlikely to be available. The move was officially explained by the need for the new leadership to bed down a month after the transfer of power, but was widely seen as a deliberate diplomatic snub. It was understood that Beijing wanted to show its displeasure after Cameron and Nick Clegg met the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, at St Paul's Cathedral in May 2012.
The snub prompted intense discussion at the highest levels in Whitehall over Britain's relations with China. The chancellor told a group of ministers at a private gathering attended by Cameron that Britain's relationship with China was of such economic and geopolitical significance that it could not allow British sensitivities over human rights to complicate matters. It is understood that the Foreign Office was keen for Britain to tread with care.
Osborne triumphed in the discussions and led a five-day trade mission to China last month which paved the way for Beijing to invest in Britain's new generation of nuclear power plants. The prime minister listened carefully to the cautious Foreign Office voices but will heed Osborne's advice when he declines to raise the issue of the Dalai Lama and Tibet in Beijing.
Downing Street declined to say whether he would challenge the Chinese leadership on human rights in the rest of China. European leaders tend to have a delphic mechanism for dealing with human rights in which they refer to an established dialogue on the issue which is then handled by lowly officials on the Chinese side.
Asked whether human rights would be raised, a No 10 source said: "We have a broad ranging relationship with China where we discuss a lot of issues. Nothing is off the table. If you look at the prime minister's visits and his bilateral meetings here human rights is an issue we discuss."
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, said: "David Cameron may now claim to be opening a new chapter with China, but in truth this visit is an attempt to make up a lot of lost ground. He came to office saying strengthening the UK's relationship with China would be a top foreign policy priority, but his lack of diplomatic skill has put the UK-China relationship in the deep freeze for the last three years."
Downing Street believes the visit is taking place at a crucial time after the Chinese leadership unveiled a major expansion of economic freedoms. But the visit may be overshadowed by the dispute between Japan and China over the disputed Senkaku island. The prime minister will find himself in China at the same time as the US vice president Joe Biden who begins a visit to the region on Sunday.
An ICM poll commissioned by the Free Tibet group found that 69% of those questioned believe it is as important or more important for human rights to be protected in Tibet as it is to maintain good relations with China.
Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, the group's director, said: "George Osborne may not have stood up for human rights and Tibet during his recent visit, but it's absolutely clear that the British public expect Mr Cameron to do better. He was willing to raise human rights in Sri Lanka just days ago and he needs to show that Britain's principles are not dependent on the wealth of his host. It's clear from this poll that only a handful of British people believe trade with China is more important than human rights in Tibet and that they expect Mr Cameron to act like a statesman, not a salesman.