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Sunak looks East: The PM’s China strategy has become clear

December 21, 2022

Rishi Sunak did say in his first major foreign policy speech that Beijing represents a major threat to western security, but he also called for more cooperation and engagement with the superpower.

It took Rishi Sunak less than a week into his Tory leadership battle with Liz Truss to dramatically swerve to the right. Amid the flurry of policies designed to win over the grassroots included a promise to be more belligerent toward China than Boris Johnson.

Sunak promised to label the country as an official “threat”, a more hardline position than Johnson, as he tried to talk tougher on China than the hawkish Truss. However, it has become clear that Sunak the Prime Minister will act very differently to Sunak the party leadership candidate.

The PM did say in his first major foreign policy speech that Beijing represents a major threat to western security, but he also called for more cooperation and engagement with the burgeoning superpower. He has also signalled that he will not designate China as an official threat, much to the chagrin of a large section of Tory MPs.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Tory MP and former party leader, has publicly vented his fury at Sunak’s new stance on British-Sino relations.

“What’s actually needed is a statement of truth – that China is a threat. The moment you say China is a threat, then everything else becomes clear,” he told City A.M.

“I’m told the Treasury still wants to do an economic trade deal, there shouldn’t be any such thing. The government should not even countenance closer trading ties. We need to tell the Chinese categorically that their behaviour is beyond the pale and we’re no longer in a position to give them an inch.”

Sunak yesterday said the UK had no other option than to maintain dialogue with Beijing and that it “makes sense” to work with Xi Jinping on issues like climate change, public health and economic stability. His reasoning appears to be simple – China’s increasing economic and financial reach is inexorable, the West cannot solve existential global challenges without Beijing’s help and Britain is not economically strong enough to decouple from China.

The Prime Minister has vowed to protect the UK’s national security from Beijing’s potential incursions, censure China for its multitude of human rights abuses – just as Johnson sanctioned the country over the ethnic cleansing of Uyghur muslims and the freedom of speech crackdown in Hong Kong – while still pursuing engagement.

This position essentially leaves us back to where we started and is in line with what Johnson proposed in last year’s integrated review of foreign and defence policy. Lukas Fiala, a coordinator at the London School of Economics’ (LSE) China Foresight programme, said “full-scale decoupling from China is unrealistic” and that “instead, we need to articulate clear boundaries within which engagement occurs”.

“Balancing security and economic interests in our relationship with China is not only a possibility, it’s a necessity,” he said.

“The UK should aim for realistic policy instruments, including leveraging expertise on non-traditional security issues such as climate change and encouraging meaningful dialogue across Asia.”

One clear demarcation from Liz Truss is the junking of her policy, first proposed in 2021 while she was foreign secretary, to create a “network of liberty” to counter China. Truss said a network of like-minded liberal democracies – like the UK, US, EU Australia and Canada – must strengthen economic and security ties to act as a bulwark against China’s growing global influence.

This approach was criticised by foreign policy wonks for isolating key developing countries like India and Vietnam, particularly as China’s Belt and Road Initiative funding does not discriminate against different political systems. Sunak and foreign secretary James Cleverly have said the UK must foster closer ties in the Asia Pacific with countries that may not share the UK’s values.

Cleverly said recently that developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America “will decide whether the international order will endure”.

“That reality has been evident for some time, but I am not convinced that British diplomacy has fully caught up,” he said.

The hard truth for Tory China hawks is that the UK’s foreign policy stance toward China will largely be dictated by the occupant of the White House and not Number 10. The US and China will be locked in a struggle over the coming decades over which country takes effective global leadership and sets the rules for the world’s international institutions.

The UK will need to follow the general trend set by the US in this geopolitical contest to maintain a close transatlantic relationship. We have already seen this recently as Boris Johnson followed Donald Trump’s lead and blocked Huawei from building the UK’s 5G network, while also legislating to stop Chinese firms from holding shares in critical national infrastructure.

“UK and China relations will be decided in Washington and Beijing, and be hugely affected by Taiwan, rather than what we control,” Chatham House research fellow David Lawrence said.

“The US is not going to stop putting pressure on the UK over China.”

It is telling that whenever asked about the UK’s stance on China that Sunak is always quick to mention that his vision is completely in line with our allies, particularly the US. It is clearly no coincidence that Joe Biden’s message after his recent meeting with Xi Jinping was that the US must cooperate with China on climate change and other global issues, while also standing strong against Beijing’s human rights abuses.

This is the foreign policy tighrope the UK will continue to walk under Sunak, unless the political situation in Beijing or Washington dramatically changes.


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