LONDON (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Britain on a state visit later this year, a Foreign Office minister said on Tuesday, while fending off lawmakers’ accusations that London was reluctant to confront Beijing over Hong Kong.
A state visit usually includes a meeting with the Queen, a visit to parliament, and a meeting with the prime minister. It would reflect warming economic relations between China and Britain even though political tensions persist.
Hugo Swire, a junior Foreign Office minister, disclosed Xi’s planned visit in parliament after being criticized by lawmakers for choosing not to summon the Chinese ambassador over China’s refusal to allow them to visit Hong Kong.
Swire said he’d spoken to the ambassador about the issue as well as broader aspects of Sino-British relations in 2015 including Prince William’s planned China visit “and a state visit from President Xi later on in the year.”
Protests demanding greater democracy in Hong Kong, a former British colony, have strained bilateral ties, and China last year prevented members of parliament’s foreign affairs committee from visiting Hong Kong as part of an inquiry into Britain’s relations with the island.
On Tuesday, members of the committee criticized the British government for not doing more to protest against what they said was an insult to parliament and Britain as a whole.
“How much more offensive does the Chinese government need to be before we say I think we need to summon them,” Richard Ottaway, the committee’s chairman, asked Swire.
“We published a report saying the ambassador should be summoned and don’t really expect our Foreign Office to say no we don’t agree with you.”
Swire said he’d visited China last week where he’d raised the issue with the Chinese foreign minister. He said summoning the ambassador “wouldn’t have served any purpose.”
Lawmakers also suggested Britain hadn’t been supportive enough of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, accusing it of being too focused on safeguarding its own business interests.
Swire, who said he had concerns about the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press in Hong Kong, strongly rejected that, saying he felt Britain had struck “just about the right balance” in its relations with Beijing.
“We need to understand each other’s cultures and respect each other,” he said. “I would refute the suggestion that we have in any way kowtowed to the Chinese government.”
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge