Rishi Sunak, the United Kingdom’s former chancellor who is in the race to become prime minister, has promised to get tough on China if he secures the top job, calling the Asian superpower the “number one threat” to domestic and global security.
Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who will participate in a televised debate on Monday evening, are competing in the increasingly divisive Conservative Party leadership contest to replace Boris Johnson, after a revolt against his scandal-ridden administration forced him to stand down.
Johnson is expected to leave the premiership later this year.
Truss is ahead in polls among the Conservative Party members who will choose their new leader and Britain’s next prime minister, but Sunak is hoping that weeks of hustings and debates will help his campaign ahead of a vote result due on September 5.
Sunak’s pledge on China on Monday came after Truss accused him of being weak on Beijing and Moscow.
China’s state-run Global Times has previously said Sunak was the only candidate in the contest with “a clear and pragmatic view on developing UK-China ties”.
Sunak’s proposals include the closure of all 30 Confucius Institutes in Britain, preventing the soft-power spread of Chinese influence through culture and language programmes.
He also promised to “kick the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] out of our universities” by forcing higher education establishments to disclose foreign funding of more than 50,000 pounds ($60,000) and reviewing research partnerships.
‘Stealing our technology’
Britain’s domestic spy agency MI5 would be used to help combat Chinese espionage, and he would look to build “NATO-style” international cooperation to tackle Chinese threats in cyberspace.
He would also study the case for banning Chinese acquisitions of key British assets, including strategically sensitive tech firms.
Sunak claimed China was “stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities” and “propping up” Russian President Vladimir Putin by buying Russian oil, as well as attempting to bully neighbours, including Taiwan.
He hit out at China’s global “belt and road” scheme for “saddling developing countries with insurmountable debt”.
“They torture, detain and indoctrinate their own people, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, in contravention of their human rights. And they have continually rigged the global economy in their favour by suppressing their currency,” he added.
“Enough is enough. For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions.
“I will change this on Day 1 as PM.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Truss’s campaign said the foreign secretary had “strengthened Britain’s position on China” and “helped lead the international response to increases Chinese aggression”.
“This will only continue when she becomes prime minister and seeks to expand her network of liberty around the world,” the spokesperson was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying.
Sunak’s tough talk is likely to please China hawks in the Conservative ranks, who had repeatedly pushed Johnson to stand up more to Beijing, but it is also a sign of how Sunak is desperately trying to claw back ground on Truss.
British government policy, when both Sunak and Truss were in Johnson’s cabinet, warned about China before.
In March last year, its integrated review of security, defence and foreign policy called China “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security”.
Under fierce political pressure from Washington, it banned Chinese technology giant Huawei from involvement in the rollout of Britain’s 5G network.
Laws have been tightened to make it harder for foreign firms to buy British businesses in sensitive sectors such as defence, energy and transport.