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Last year, when campaigning for the Conservative leadership, Rishi Sunak described China as the ‘largest threat’ to Britain. That went beyond the description of Beijing as a ‘systemic competitor’ in the 2021 Integrated Review.
This language was welcomed by backbench China hawks, especially those who had been sanctioned for raising the alarm about Beijing and its persecution of the Uyghurs, silencing of Hong Kong, industrial espionage, and more. Their worry is that we have been to soft on China, prioritising trade and investment over human rights and strategic clarity.
Iain Duncan Smith – amongst their number – has called for China to officially be labelled a ‘threat’ to end an era kowtowing and appeasement. A similar suggestion was made by Alicia Kearns’ Foreign Affairs Committee – although it also said that stronger rhetoric must be matched by serious efforts to improve our national security.
Most importantly, re-designating China was the central plank of Liz Truss’s foreign policy platform. She ordered this update of the Review in order to toughen up its stance on China. Sunak decided to persist with it – an almost-inevitable move following Ukraine’s invasion.
The document’s failure to explicitly label China as a ‘threat’ will therefore come as a disappointment to this part of the Conservative Parliamentary Party. Duncan Smith has warned it makes us “look soft” on Beijing – “fearful not feared” – and suggested the Government’s approach is confused. Kearns has expressed concern that we shouldn’t see China as primarily an economic competitor, since it also seeks to “undermine our national security and sovereignty”.
Coming on the same day as Sunak signed the landmark AUKUS submarine deal – but promised only to raise defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP, not the three per cent outlined by Truss – is this evidence that his much-vaunted ‘Treasury brain’ is still counting pennies at the expense of defending human rights and our national security? The Member for South West Norfolk remains silent (for now).
But focusing on the semantics of whether China is a ‘challenge’ rather than a ‘threat’ – systemic or otherwise – is to lose the wood for the trees. It ignores the actions that Sunak has already taken to toughen up our stance, the logic behind the wording present in the Review, and how this is all perceived in Beijing. What Sunak calls China is much less important than how he acts against it.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, the Prime Minister described China as “an epoch-defining challenge to us and to the global order”. He called it the biggest state-derived threat to “our economic security”: “increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad” with “very different values to ours”.
All sentiments any self-declared China hawk could agree with. But in explaining why he prefers to call China a “challenge” rather than a “threat”, Sunak said he doesn’t think “it’s smart or sophisticated policy to reduce our relationship with China” to “just two words”. We need a “very thoughtful and detailed approach to China” – outlined in the refreshed Integrated Review.
The Review – announced by the Foreign Secretary in the Commons yesterday – prioritises coordinating our approach with countries of a similar disposition. It fulfils Sunak’s campaign pledge to create a National Protective Security Authority within MI5 to tackle Chinese influence across universities and businesses.
It also doubles training across government for dealing with China. Most importantly, it now includes a reference to the threat China poses to Taiwan. The failure to do so originally was criticised – including, privately, by Cabinet ministers worried about a Chinese invasion in the next decade.
But, in stopping short of labelling the country a threat, the Review also highlights our need to continue to engage constructively with China both diplomatically and economically. China’s cooperation remains essential in any initiative to tackle climate change; the country was our fourth-largest trading partner last year.
One may believe such engagement is a fool’s errand. Duncan Smith suggested China has “no intention” of meeting our eco-demands. A “complete reversal” of policy is required. This Review certainly stops short of that. But that is because of the difficult diplomatic balancing act the Government has to walk and not because we want to kiss Beijing’s ring.
This is a Review that is as interested in not upsetting Washington as it is Beijing. Labelling China a ‘challenge’ rather than a ‘threat’ mirrors the language of the Biden administration. Sunak does not want to fall out of step with our leading Pacific ally for little discernible benefit other than a few backbench cheers.
One should focus on this Government’s actions, rather than its words. Sunak blocked the Chinese takeover of Newport Wafer, a computer chip producer; approved the new Cumbrian coalmine designed for domestic steel production; and removed a Chinese firm from Sizewall C. The desire to reduce our reliance on China for strategic technologies and resources is clear.
A similar objective lies behind the decision to create the National Protective Security Authority, and to legislate against tentacles of Beijing like the Confucius Institutes. All this demonstrates the “whole of government strategy and determination to act” that Tom Tugendhat called for three years ago.
Hence why – as highlighted by Cindy Yu – Sunak is seen in Beijing as a China hawk. Yesterday, Chinese headlines have been dominated by warnings of increasing British determination. The ‘Golden Era’ is well and truly over.
One wonders whether this will be noticed by Sunak’s backbench critics. They are right to suggest the Government has a moral duty to highlight and oppose those elements of Beijing’s despicable regime that run contrary to our values – as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John-Paul II did in the 1980s.
But there is no point in speaking stridently and carrying a small stick. Despite our pretensions, we have not been a major player in the Pacific since the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales. Our contribution to any future defence of Taiwan would be negligible.
As such – and as the Integrated Review recognises – our relationship with China cannot be defined by mere opposition. This is not the 1980s. Branding China an “evil empire” and relying on Mikhail Gorbachev and falling oil prices to do the rest will not cut it.
Instead – as Kearns has highlighted – we face the long and hard task of decoupling ourselves from a major trading partner whilst building up both our own state capacity and the required alliances and institutions needed to, as Tugendhat suggested, “achieve…a strategy” by which democracies “sustain each other” and do not “sell out” to Beijing.
In the face of that task, quibbling about the exact language we use is a side issue. Indeed, posturing against China from a position of weakness reminds me of David Bowie’s ‘China Girl’.
Telling his eponymous lover that she “shouldn’t mess with me” as he’ll “ruin everything you are”, she tells him to ssh. “Oh, baby,” smiles Beijing -“just you shut your mouth”. The human rights abuses continue; the imports keep rolling in.
Our romance with China may be over. But negotiating our divorce will be trickier than letting off a few barbed words about our ex.