(Reuters) – Britain has put a diplomatic rift with China over the Dalai Lama behind it and Prime Minister David Cameron has no plans to meet Tibet’s spiritual leader again, a senior source in his office said ahead of a visit by the British leader to Beijing.
Instead, Cameron will use a three-day visit to China next week, his first since the Dalai Lama rift, to focus on deepening trade ties with the world’s second largest economy, taking with him a delegation of around 100 business people.
“This visit is forward looking. We have turned a page on that issue,” said the source when asked whether Cameron would raise the issue of Tibet during his trip. “It’s about shifting UK relations up a gear and looking to the future.”
Foreign trips often pose a public relations problem for the British leader as he has to balance his policy of helping Britain win what he calls the global economic “race” with speaking out about any human rights concerns.
It is a circle he has sometimes found hard to square and campaigners often accuse him of putting trade before rights.
Cameron, who is likely to visit Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, had been expected to travel to China last autumn.
But he didn’t go after China took offence at him holding a meeting with the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing deems a separatist.
China summoned the British ambassador to protest at the time, saying the meeting had “seriously interfered with China’s internal affairs”, urging Britain to “correct the error”.
Free Tibet, a group that campaigns against what it says are rights abuses in the autonomous Chinese region, released a poll on the eve of Cameron’s visit showing that 58 percent of Britons thought he should raise the issue of Tibet with the Chinese.
“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,” Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, the group’s director, said in a statement.
Last month, George Osborne, Britain’s finance minister, visited China with Boris Johnson, the mayor of London.
Both men declined to discuss the Dalai Lama, focusing instead on what they said was the huge potential for enhanced economic ties.
Osborne announced less stringent rules for Chinese banks operating in London in a push to make the British capital the main offshore hub for trading in China’s currency and bonds.
He also opened the door to Chinese investors taking majority stakes in future British nuclear plants.
The source said British exports to China had increased by 20 percent in the first six months of this year, while inward investment by China was at its highest level in decades.
The timing of Cameron’s trip was good, the source said, because it came soon after China’s communist leadership set new long-term policy priorities which included opening up the economy further.
Xavier Rolet, the chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, is expected to travel with Cameron.
The business delegation is also expected to include Andrew Witty, the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline. The company was drawn into a bribery case in China earlier this year which resulted in police detaining four Chinese GSK executives.
Peter Humphrey, a British man running a risk advisory group, was also detained and is still being held.