For years, China was a near irrelevance in British politics. That changed when a range of crises raised the country’s profile in a highly negative light in 2020.
These included fears that China was holding back the truth about Covid-19, concerns over Huawei providing key parts of the UK telecom network, and mounting public anger over the Hong Kong National Security Law and political ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang province.
In 2020, the British government undertook an Integrated Review of defense and foreign policy. The review advocated strong protections against Chinese threats, including espionage and hacking. It also outlined potential cooperation in areas such as trade and climate change.
During the recent Conservative leadership contest to become the next prime minister which Liz Truss won, rival Rishi Sunak declared that China was the ‘number one’ threat facing the UK.
He pledged to close the remaining Confucius Institutes in the country – Chinese-sponsored language schools that are suspected of providing an entry point for Beijing propaganda.
In the last week of the contest, Truss upped the ante by announcing that she would change the verdict of the Integrated Review. Rather than treating China as a country with at least some areas of advantage for the UK, she would explicitly declare it as a threat, on par with Russia.
Despite the hawkish language, neither candidate laid out a precise China strategy. Discussions about China have so far only set a mood rather than expose the trade-offs that the United Kingdom will face if a firmer position towards China is adopted.
New Prime Minister Truss’s position has upsides from a political point of view. But it also limits options – the previous position allowed the UK to take issues on their merits.
London could speak out about human rights abuses while also hosting COP26, a forum in which it was necessary to treat China as a respected guest. That will be harder to do if Beijing, like Moscow, is officially deemed a ‘threat’.
There is still some puzzlement on the right as to the precise details of Truss’s position. Conservative Home, a popular right-wing grassroots blog, published a piece suggesting that her rhetoric seems to lack a plan.
In the center-right Spectator magazine, well-connected journalist Cindy Yu reported that the Great Britain China Centre or GBCC may be about to lose the Foreign Office funding it has received for nearly half a century.
As a non-partisan, partly government-funded think tank on Sino-British issues, the GBCC is a rarity in the UK.
At a time when the British government needs to think more actively and critically about its China policy, it would be an odd moment to defund the only established UK organization equipped to do precisely that.
Fortunately, the China conundrum is a rare issue over which the UK is not polarised on political grounds. That is not to deny that there are divisions.
There is a divide between those who prioritize values and security and those who think that the UK post-Brexit needs to maintain a relationship with the world’s second-largest economy.
But those divisions are not partisan – there are Conservatives on both sides. While Labour and the Liberal Democrats tend to prioritize values and security over economics, they will also need to present a post-Brexit economic story.
Prioritizing human rights and security is an admirable political choice and one that may be well received across the political spectrum in the aftermath of the United Nations’ highly critical report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, published this month.
But it requires an explicit strategy to decide the future of joint British-Chinese investments. These include Chinese investments in UK life sciences, luxury goods, and legal services.
Longer-term questions will be pushed up the agenda if London takes a tougher Beijing stance in the 2020s.
The UK will have to work out where Taiwan sits on its list of priorities, and whether its new interest in developing a military presence in the Western Pacific extends to joining a US-led defense of the islands’ autonomy in the event of a confrontation.
If the UK enters the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership later this year, London will have to develop a stance on Beijing and Taipei’s applications.
It will also have to build relations with a new Labor government in Australia, whose foreign policy tone is very different from that of its Liberal – or conservative – predecessor.
Perhaps the most intractable question will be whether the European Union will rally behind London’s new stance to form a united coalition against growing authoritarianism.
The China challenge sits on top of an overwhelming pile of issues, ranging from inflation to the Ukraine war, that will confront new Prime Minister Truss. By defining China as a ‘threat’, the British government will have to make clear what its relationship with Beijing will look like during the 2020s and beyond.
Rana Mitter is a professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford and the author of China’s Good War (2020).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.