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China is waiting to see whether British Conservative leaders’ tough rhetoric toward China, a tectonic change in the UK’s China policy, will turn into cohesive and long-term policies

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Jan.1

Home appliances by British manufacturer Dyson are displayed in a shop in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, October 20, 2021

Since Boris Johnson resigned as leader of the UK’s ruling Conservative Party in July, the country has been roiled by months of political turmoil. Taking office on September 6, 2022, former prime minister Liz Truss was quickly forced to step down on October 24 over her disastrous mini budget. That same day, Rishi Sunak, 42, who lost an internal election within the Conservative Party to Truss over the summer, emerged as the UK’s third prime minister in two months, the youngest person to hold the office in modern times.  

Although the UK’s political turbulence is mostly about domestic issues as the country struggles with soaring energy prices and inflation, for China it is the country’s foreign policies that matter, especially as both Truss and Sunak voiced harsh rhetoric toward China during their leadership campaigns.  

During the short-lived Truss administration, media reported the UK was on the brink of formally designating China as a threat for the first time, which would mark a historical shift in Britain’s diplomatic stance toward China. Sunak’s coming into power may have prevented a fracturing of the Sino-British relationship.  

But as the bilateral relationship has spiraled down in recent years, the evolution of Britain’s China policy under Sunak’s leadership is being closely watched in China and around the globe. 

‘Golden’ Period 
The UK was long considered the most pragmatic Western country on policy toward China. It was the first Western country to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950, though full diplomatic ties were established only in 1972. After China became the world’s second-largest economy in the 2010s, the UK and China became major economic partners.  

Under former prime minister David Cameron, who said in 2015 that he wanted the UK to be China’s closest friend in the West, the two countries forged what he termed the “golden era” of relations. A leading hub of Chinese financial activity in Europe, the City of London is the second-largest clearing center for the yuan after Hong Kong. It even fended off criticism from the US to become the first major Western country to join the Chinainitiated Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in December 2015.  

During a State visit to the UK by Chinese President Xi Jinping that year, the two sides agreed to establish a “global partnership” and strengthen cooperation on foreign policy, security, and a wide range of global challenges.  

But after the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016 which precipitated Cameron’s resignation, London started to seek a new role on the global stage, injecting much uncertainty into the UK’s foreign policy including toward China.  

While many believed the UK would become more dependent on the US, thus more constrained in pursuing a more independent China policy, others argued the UK could play a bridging role between the US, China and the EU, with China being an important partner which could replace the EU in foreign investment into the UK in the post-Brexit era. 

May and Johnson 
In February 2018, Cameron’s successor Theresa May visited China, where she reaffirmed that British-China relations were still in a golden era.  

But as Washington adopted a confrontational stance toward China on a variety of issues, first with a protectionist approach under the Trump administration, and later through establishing a united front among Western countries under the Biden administration, the UK found it increasingly difficult to prioritize economic cooperation with China over the UK’s strategic dependency on the US, and was gradually dragged into the orbit of US-China competition.  

It was under mounting pressure from the US that the Boris Johnson administration made a policy U-turn to ban Huawei from the British 5G network in 2020. Britain also joined the US and Australia in the AUKUS deal, helping Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines to counter China’s military presence in the region.  

As the UK has increasingly aligned itself with Washington on a range of issues, including Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the origin of Covid, the South China Sea and Taiwan, the bilateral relationship between the UK and China has rapidly deteriorated.  

But despite all these disputes, Johnson repeatedly declared himself a “Sinophile,” including in a phone call with Xi in October 2021. He sought to push for closer economic ties with China, only to be repeatedly dragged back by a parliament that had become increasingly hostile to China. 

Sunak the Pragmatist? 
Having served as Johnson’s finance minister, Sunak is perceived to hold a more pragmatic stance toward China. In a high-profile speech in July 2021 at Mansion House, the residence of the Lord Mayor of London, Sunak called for a “mature and balanced” relationship with China, which he said means “recognizing the links between our people and businesses, cooperating on global issues like health, aging, climate and biodiversity, and realizing the potential of a fastgrowing financial services market with total assets worth 40 trillion pounds.”  

“We can pursue with confidence an economic relationship with China in a safe, mutually beneficial way without compromising our values or security,” he added.  

But as he joined the contest for the top position in July, Sunak surprisingly started to adopt a much more hawkish rhetoric toward China, declaring it “the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security” and calling for NATO-style “international cooperation against China.”  

Many interpreted Sunak’s sudden reinvention as a China hawk as a campaign tactic, given the overall anti-China political atmosphere within the Tory Party.  

According to Jin Ling, senior research fellow and vice-director of the Department for European Studies of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), a major development within the Conservative Party since the Cameron administration is that it has become increasingly “politicized and ideological,” which has led to internal divisions and polarization within the Tories.  

“The UK is still mired in post-Brexit chaos and lives in its self-created dilemma between globalism and protectionism,” Jin told NewsChina. “On one hand, the UK advocated trade liberalization and calls for a ‘global Britain,’ on the other hand, its Brexit decision was driven by deeply-rooted protectionism and isolationism,” Jin said.  

Just as internal divisions on domestic issues led to a bipartisan consensus on a tough stance toward China in Washington, the internal chaos of UK politics has made an anti-China stance the new political correctness. “Whoever enters Downing Street... will have to at least pay lip service to a significantly tougher policy than what came before,” reads an article published by Politico on July 27 entitled “In the race to succeed Boris Johnson, only China hawks need apply.”  

Now he is in office, the UK government is planning to follow through on Sunak’s campaign pledge to close all 30 Confucius Institutes in universities across the UK, due to “security concerns,” Security Minister Tom Tugendhat told parliament. In his first phone call with US President Joe Biden after assuming office, Sunak also pledged to work closely with the US in the Indo-Pacific region to counter “China’s malign influence.”  

Most Chinese experts believe that given Sunak’s experience as a former finance minister, it is unlikely he will continue Liz Truss’s hardline approach. According to Professor Ding Chun, director of the Center for European Studies at Shanghai-based Fudan University, Sunak appears far less hawkish toward China than Truss. “Sunak clearly understands the benefits of economic cooperation with China, and what it means for the UK and Europe,” Ding told Chinese outlet The Paper.  

Others argued that as the UK is struggling with economic difficulties at home, Sunak’s immediate focus will be on handling domestic issues and he may not be able to formulate a complete China policy in the short term.  

“As an economist and a former finance minister, Sunak has a more profound understanding of the UK’s economic standing and has a more prudent governing style,” Zhao Junjie, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of European Studies, told NewsChina. Zhao said Sunak’s immediate priority will be to maintain economic and social stability and is unlikely to make drastic foreign policy changes, including on China. 

Students at Kilgraston School, Bridge of Earn, Perthshire, Scotland, take part in a dragon dance activity to mark the Chinese New Year, January 31, 2022

Wait and See 
So far, the Chinese government appears to have adopted a “wait and see” stance, refraining from directly responding to hawkish rhetoric from both Truss and Sunak. 
In her answer to a question about Truss becoming prime minister in September, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on September 6 that she hopes relations with Britain will remain “on the right track.” After Sunak became prime minister, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory message, saying that China is willing to push forward bilateral ties for a healthy and stable development.  

When asked about the phone call between Sunak and Biden on working together to counter China in a regular press conference on October 26, 2022, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin appeared to avoid mentioning the UK or Sunak while urging the US to stop propagating the “China threat” theory. “China is a development partner and an opportunity for other countries, not a threat or challenge,” Wang said.  

According to Zhang Jian, assistant president of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), the UK has deviated from its long-held pragmatist tradition in the past few years, so much so that its China policy has become “beyond recognition” for Chinese policymakers.  

Speaking at a CICIR seminar in August 2022 on the prospects of Sino-British relations in the post-Johnson era, Zhang said that the major question for China now is whether the UK’s current antiChina stance is temporary or a long-term policy.  

During his trip to the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia held on November 15- 16, 2022, Sunak said he will not follow through on Truss’s plan to elevate China’s status to that of a “threat” from the current status of a “systemic competitor,” stressing that China remains an “undisputable fact of the global economy” and that the UK cannot resolve global issues without dialog with China.  

For now, it seems that Sunak will likely continue the broad foreign policies of the Johnson administration, which is to align with the US on ideology and security with a tough stance on China on the political front, while maintaining a functional and pragmatic view on trade ties.  

For many Chinese experts, threats to the UK do not come from China. “The most pressing challenge for the Sunak administration is whether it can properly handle its economic difficulties,” said Zhao Junjie. “If the UK government fails to do so, not only could Sunak be forced to step down as prime minister, but the British economy will plunge deeper into crisis too,” Zhao said.  

At the 5th China-UK Economic and Trade Forum in London on November 2, 2022, Chinese Ambassador Zeng Zeguang said “To view China as a threat is to lose touch with the reality and to decouple from the future.” In his speech, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, chair of the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC) referred to its research showing that trade with China supports up to 150,000 jobs across the UK.  

However, in mid-November, the UK ordered China’s Wingtech Technology to withdraw most of its stake in the UK’s biggest microchip factory, Newport Wafer Fab, that it acquired in July 2021.  

“The UK has overstretched the concept of national security and abused State power to directly interfere in a Chinese company’s normal investment cooperation in Britain,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on November 18.