Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, has urged Britain to join a “broad alliance” against China as the UK government faces new pressure to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the oppression of Muslim Uighurs.
Amid growing geopolitical tensions between western nations and Beijing, the top US diplomat held “candid” meetings with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other senior UK politicians, including foreign secretary Dominic Raab and Labour leader Keir Starmer, in London on Tuesday.
Mr Pompeo also met hawkish backbench MPs, telling them he wanted the UK to be part of an alliance of nations prepared to challenge China’s actions. The meeting was about “getting us together”, said one backbencher who was in the room. “It is not about attacking China but rather saying ‘your behaviour means its very difficult for us to do business with you’.”
Mr Pompeo also “discussed the possibility” of the UK using its new sanctions regime, the so-called British “Magnitsky Act”, against Chinese officials implicated in the detention of more than 1m Muslim Uighurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang province, according to another MP at the meeting.
Downing Street confirmed that the secretary of state discussed the mistreatment of the Uighurs but said the issue of sanctions did not come up. Allies of Mr Raab declined to say whether sanctions had been discussed with the secretary of state in a “private conversation”.
The foreign secretary on Sunday said that it was “not as simple as deciding you can willy nilly sanction X or Y”.
Washington has taken an increasingly combative stance against China this year, with Mr Pompeo previously indicating Britain should choose whether to ally with Beijing or Washington. The Trump administration has already sanctioned several top Chinese Communist party officials over their involvement human rights abuses against Uighurs.
Speaking at a press conference at the Foreign Office, Mr Pompeo said: “We think that the entire world needs to work together to ensure that every country — including China — behaves in the international system in ways that are appropriate and consistent with the international order.”
His visit came within hours of the UK suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, with UK-China relations deteriorating since Beijing implemented a sweeping new security law for the territory. London’s criticism of the treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority by the Chinese government has also raised tensions.
Mr Pompeo and Mr Johnson discussed the situation in Hong Kong, rising tensions with China and the prime minister’s decision last week to instruct UK telecoms operators to remove Huawei technology from their 5G mobile networks by 2027.
The Trump administration had mounted an intense lobbying operation to try to persuade the prime minister to ban Huawei from supplying 5G equipment because of US concerns that the Chinese telecoms equipment maker could enable Beijing to spy on western allies.
Mr Pompeo said he and Mr Raab, “talked about how we have seen Hong Kong’s freedom crushed” and the Chinese Communist party “bully its neighbours”.
He added: “I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the British government for its principled responses to these challenges. You have made a sovereign decision to ban Huawei from future 5G networks, you have joined other free nations to condemn China’s broken promises on the Sino-British treaty, you generously opened your doors to Hong Kongers who . . . are fleeing for freedom.
“And yesterday you suspended your extradition treaty and extended your arms embargo on China to Hong Kong itself. We support those sovereign choices, we think well done.”
Appearing alongside Mr Pompeo, Mr Raab insisted the UK had not been “strong-armed” by its US allies into banning Huawei from supplying kit for Britain’s 5G mobile phone networks.
Earlier on Tuesday, US defence secretary Mark Esper warned against China’s pursuit of what he described as “its own maritime empire” in international waters, saying he planned to visit China this year to establish a means of crisis communications between Washington and Beijing.
He said he wanted to “reinforce our intentions to openly compete in the international system in which we all belong”.
Mr Esper told the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies that the US was equipping forces across Asia with a view to countering China, including selling arms to Taiwan and sending Navy ships into regional waters in the South China China as part of so-called “freedom of navigation” exercises.