Rishi Sunak warns against ‘cold war’ with China despite growing ‘authoritarianism’

The Independent
The Independent

Rishi Sunak has accused China of sinking deeper into authoritarianism, warning that it presents an acute challenge to Britain’s values and interests.

In his first major foreign policy speech as prime minister, Mr Sunak promised to reshape UK foreign policy in response to “sharpening competition” from Beijing. But he warned against “simplistic Cold War rhetoric” on China, and insisted he would continue to employ “diplomacy and engagement” in his dealings with the communist-run state.

His comments were blasted as “weak” by critics, following the arrest and beating of BBC journalist Ed Lawrence who was covering demonstrations in Shanghai.

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith , who is subject to sanctions from Beijing in relation to his record of speaking out about abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, told The Independent that Mr Sunak’s promise to pursue a policy of “diplomacy and engagement” with China was “shameful”.

And Labour accused the PM of “flip-flopping” on China, just months after Mr Sunak told voters in the Tory leadership contest that the country and its communist leaders represent “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”.

Mr Sunak’s speech followed reports that protests taking place on the streets of Chinese cities against Covid restrictions had been met with a strong police response.

In the annual foreign policy address by the prime minister to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London, Mr Sunak promised an “evolutionary leap” in the UK’s approach to repressive regimes around the world, which he said would be characterised by “robust pragmatism”.

In unusually sharp criticism of the attempts of his predecessor David Cameron, and Mr Cameron’s chancellor, George Osborne, to forge closer links with the emerging economic superpower, he declared their dream of a “golden era” in UK-China relations dead, and said it was “naive” to expect increased trade to lead to social and political reforms.

But he also cautioned against the “Cold War rhetoric” of some of his backbench critics, who have cast the rivalry between China and the West as a rerun of the stand-off with the Soviet Union that froze international relations for much of the 20th century.

“We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism,” said the prime minister.

But he added: “We cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs, to global economic stability or issues like climate change. The US, Canada, Australia, Japan and many others understand this too. So together we’ll manage this sharpening competition, including with diplomacy and engagement.”

Mr Sunak said his new approach would be guided by the need to bolster the UK’s economic security, referring to measures such as the removal of Chinese giant Huawei from the 5G phone network and blocking the sale of the Newport Wafer Fab semiconductor factory to a Chinese-owned firm.

And he said that the UK must “end global dependence on authoritarian regimes – starting with Russian gas”.

But aides said that, while remaining “clear-eyed” about the clash between China’s values and those of the UK, Mr Sunak wanted to build a “constructive” relationship with Beijing over the longer term.

Sir Iain told The Independent : “‘Robust pragmatism’ is meaningless. You can’t have two separate policies running in parallel with a country like China. That will be seen by them as weakness, and it looks and sounds to me like appeasement.”

The former Conservative leader said Mr Sunak must use the current rewrite of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy to upgrade China from a “competitor” to a “threat” to British national interests, placing it alongside Russia.

“America and Australia, all of those countries are much tougher with China while we drag our feet,” said Sir Iain. “I think it is shameful.”

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy described the speech as “thin gruel”.

“All it shows is that once again the Conservative government is flip-flopping in its rhetoric on China,” he said. “Instead of talk, we need policy. The government urgently needs to publish its long-promised China strategy, as well as its update to the Integrated Review that is already out of date.”

Senior Tory MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said the UK must work with Beijing on “lots of things”, but stressed it is crucial to “make clear our red lines”.

“We can’t just cut them off and not have a relationship with them – that is where the pragmatism comes in,” she told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One . “But we also have to be very cautious, and we have to protect our interests, and we have to make clear our red lines. Rishi promised that he would change China policy on day one, and we just haven’t seen that yet.”

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