Rishi Sunak has defended his policy of continuing to engage with China despite believing that Xi Jinping’s “increasingly authoritarian” administration poses an “epoch-defining challenge” to the global order.
The Prime Minister, who claimed during the Tory leadership contest last year that China represented the “biggest long-term threat to Britain”, appears to have softened his stance but insisted he remained acutely aware of the challenges posed by Beijing.
The Government will on Monday publish an update to its foreign and security policy, motivated in part by concerns about China’s increasingly assertive international role.
Mr Sunak will be in the United States when the document is published on Monday, holding talks with US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine programme – a project motivated by Canberra’s concerns about China’s actions in the Pacific.
“I think it presents an epoch-defining challenge to us and to the global order. It’s a regime that is increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad, and has a desire to reshape the world order.”
Asked about his previous comments on China, Mr Sunak said: “We’ve recognised it as the biggest state-based threat to our economic security.
“What I would say is I don’t think it’s smart or sophisticated foreign policy to reduce our relationship with China – which, after all, is a country with one-and-a-half billion people, the second biggest economy and a member of the UN Security Council – to just two words.”
He said “you can’t ignore China” given the size of the economy, so it was “necessary and right to try and engage with them”, claiming the UK was following a similar policy to its allies in engaging with Beijing.
He said he was acutely aware of the challenge posed by China, adding: “It’s absolutely right that we are protecting ourselves against that. Since I’ve been Prime Minister, we’ve taken very significant action to do that. That’s what we’ll continue to do.”
Asked if he would travel to Beijing to meet the Chinese president, he said: “It’s not about going there or not going there. I think engagement is the point – that all our allies take the view that it’s right to engage with China, on the issues that we can find common ground and make a difference on, for example climate change, global health, macroeconomic stability etc.
Tory Alicia Kearns, chairwoman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, is among those who have called for a tougher stance on China.
She said: “I welcome the recognition of the threat of China, but this threat cannot be seen as primarily economic, that is to fail to understand China is foremost seeking to undermine our national security and sovereignty.
“Because no country can have economic security without national security.”
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said he feared the review would be “a wasted opportunity to call out China as they are, a threat to our way of life and physically to us”.
“By being weak in facing China, China doesn’t respect us,” he said.
“If we don’t show strength they won’t respect us.
“Project Kowtow is alive and well.”
Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China – an international campaign group seeking to co-ordinate the response of democratic nations to Beijing, said: “The concern is that if the Integrated Review Refresh fails to acknowledge Beijing for the very real and present threat that it is, it will do little to help the UK to face up to Beijing’s increasingly troubling behaviour.”