While the campaign for the UK prime ministership was more about domestic issues than foreign policy, China still made fleeting appearances. Prime Minister Liz Truss had long pushed for a more ‘hawkish’ approach to China, commenting in the past about the need for the United Kingdom to avoid ‘dependency’ on the People’s Republic.
She suggested that China be declared a national security threat and reportedly pushed for a declaration of ‘genocide’ in China’s north-western region of Xinjiang. But the China issue dropped down the agenda of the leadership campaign after her final contender, Rishi Sunak, declared China the top threat to the United Kingdom.
The net result of the prime ministerial campaign is an accelerated shift in the centre of gravity of British political discourse about China towards that of the United States and Australia. Whether or not a Truss government delivers on some of her earlier comments, the United Kingdom’s China policy has moved well away from the characteristically pragmatic and nuanced approach it has taken since the late 1990s.
There are a number of factors behind this ongoing shift. Some argue that China’s actions have been the central factor, but it is striking how volatile the UK policy approach has been since 2010 — a period in which China’s trajectory was steadier.
The Conservative Party leadership campaign showed that domestic politics shape the United Kingdom’s approach to China. It is not just Truss who has gained profile through taking hawkish positions on China. Tom Tugendhat — one of the contenders for the Conservative Party leadership — used the China issue and foreign policy to mark out his political territory. He is now the Minister of State for Security.
Those vying to take over from him as Chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee will keep up the pressure on the government to harden its China policy. There are no votes in a softer or more nuanced approach.
These shifts will be amplified by lobby groups seeking to shape UK parliamentary and media discussions of China. The campaigners move from one issue to the next — the ‘Internet of Things’ is now in the firing line — as government concessions to their lobbying have mounted over recent years. Removing Huawei from the 5G network is the most obvious example.
Another factor is the desire for ‘Western’ unity, perhaps strengthened following the conflict in Ukraine. The previous British government had already been demonstrating more willingness to follow the tone set by Washington, whether through G7 statements or the AUKUS deal. The United Kingdom’s relations with Europe remain fragile, and the March 2021 Integrated Review of Foreign, Defence and Security policy tied British fortunes more closely to the United States. Despite the spin about a ‘partnership’ between the United States and the United Kingdom, the reality is a relationship of subordinate dependency on a dysfunctional Washington.
Critical examination of the relationship with the United States does not find its way into the discussion about China in the United Kingdom. Neither does a great deal of informed debate and research about China itself. One of Truss’ last decisions as UK Foreign Secretary was reportedly to cut the funding for the Great Britain China Centre. The United Kingdom is already weak in China studies and, despite all of the discussion on Hong Kong, hardly any policy research is being done into its former dependent territory.
The outcome looks to be a diminished knowledge base and limited efforts to learn about China, creating a vacuum into which ideological approaches will happily step. That makes it more difficult to assess how events in China have shaped the recent UK policy debate.
Reports about Hong Kong and Xinjiang have dominated the recent media coverage of China in the United Kingdom, but there has been little space for critical public debate. Meanwhile, several assumptions about China have become increasingly mainstream. These are the ideas that China is a significant ‘threat’ to national security and democracy and that Chinese ‘influence’ in the United Kingdom has risen.
The most common evidence offered for these views is a misrepresentation of a comment by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 as a statement of strategic desire to ‘dominate’ the United Kingdom. But China has no interest or capability to change the UK political system, though it wanted to reduce British ‘interference’ in Hong Kong after the 2019 unrest.
Examining UK media or parliamentary discussions about China dispels the idea that Chinese ‘influence’ is on the rise — it is hard to find anything positive said about the country in many recent ‘debates’. What little influence China might have previously had is waning and unlikely to return soon.
The new Truss government may well review its China policy. If it does, it should ask what the United Kingdom’s objectives are regarding China, beyond following Washington’s provocative rhetoric, and assess the actual consequences of its current policies.
If the UK government wants to promote climate security, then it will need to work with China. If London wants to address inflation, then trade with China could be helpful. If it wants to promote research and innovation, then a partnership with China, the world’s emerging innovation powerhouse, would support UK ambitions.
That sort of pragmatic approach does not look likely. The display of political egotism in using the death of Queen Elizabeth II as another stick with which to beat China is just another example of how ideology and politics are trumping pragmatism and national interest.
First published in the East Asia Forum 01 Oct 2022.