The Business Secretary said it would not be productive to “pull up the drawbridge” with countries with questionable human rights records as the Government holds the door open to increasing trade with China.
Kwasi Kwarteng backed the Foreign Secretary after leaked reports suggested Dominic Raab told officials the UK should strike trade deals with nations that do not meet the level of standards set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Mr Raab is said to have told department staff that the UK was “not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future” if it took a restrictive approach.
But Labour said the prospect of offering preferential trade terms to China, which is accused of carrying out genocide against the Uighur minorities in Xinjiang province, was an “abomination”.
Mr Kwarteng said the UK would continue to make “representations” to countries, including China, about upholding human rights but that the Government needed to be “flexible” with its trade policy.
The comments come after ministers on Tuesday published a major review of post-Brexit foreign policy, which includes plans for a “positive trade and investment relationship” with China.
The Business Secretary told Sky News: “I agree with what the Foreign Secretary has said about trade.
“I think you obviously have to take each circumstance as it comes. I think there are serious issues with China and we have made representations to them.
“Our ambassador in China has made really strong representations to the Chinese government about their behaviour and we’ve said that we don’t find this (Uighur treatment) remotely acceptable.”
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today, Mr Kwarteng added that other nations were likely to take diplomatic interventions “far more seriously” if objections were made when “already engaged”.
“What I don’t think is productive and what doesn’t make any sense is to simply metaphorically pull up the drawbridge and say we aren’t going to have any dealings with whatever country it is and then at the same time tell the country when we think they are not behaving properly or treating their minorities well,” the Cabinet minister added.
“I think you have to engage in order to be taken seriously and in order to have influence, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
But Labour’s Emily Thornberry called for the UK to continue to insert human rights clauses into future trade deals, just as it had done as an EU member, to “exert some pressure” on countries to follow high standards.
“I think it would be an abomination to sign up to a trade deal, giving China preferential rates and access to our economy at the moment, I really do,” the shadow trade secretary told Today.
Senior Conservative MPs are among those who have been pressuring the Government on allegations that China is committing genocide against the Uighur Muslims and other minorities, as well as being involved in human rights abuses in Hong Kong.
In a Commons statement on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there was “no question” China would pose a “great challenge for an open society such as ours”.
But he added: “We will also work with China where that is consistent with our values and interests, including building a stronger and positive economic relationship and in addressing climate change.”
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said the leaked audio of Mr Raab’s comments, published by the HuffPost website, had been “deliberately and selectively clipped to distort” what had been relayed.