Truss, Sunak set China in their sights amid UK leadership race

Conservative hopefuls vying to replace Boris Johnson as PM have pledged to confront Beijing if elected.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are seen taking part in a televised debate
The leadership contest between Sunak and Truss will conclude on September 5 [Jacob King/Pool via AFP]

London, United Kingdom – The ill-tempered leadership election to determine the United Kingdom’s next prime minister has seen Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss clash on a range of issues, from how to fix the country’s ailing economy to each other’s political records.

But on one issue, the Conservative Party hopefuls appear to be in harmony – the need to confront what they say is the rising geopolitical threat posed by China.

Both have promised to take strong action against Beijing should they succeed outgoing leader Boris Johnson, with each vying to adopt the toughest line on how best to restrain its burgeoning international influence.

Their stance, analysts said, suggests the “golden era” for Sino-British ties heralded by UK politicians less than 10 years ago has finally drawn to a close after increasing friction in recent years over the fate of Hong Kong, espionage, cybersecurity and human rights concerns, among other issues.

“The fact that both Sunak and Truss have tried to do their best to look as hardline towards China as possible is a sign of the direction travel, regardless of which of them becomes prime minister,” Rana Mitter, a professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University, told Al Jazeera.

“It would appear that the security element is probably going to be stressed more under Sunak or Truss and that the trade element is probably going to be downplayed,” he said.

‘Best partner in the West’

China is the UK’s third largest trade partner, accounting for nearly seven percent of the country’s global commerce.

Annual trade in goods and services between the two countries currently amounts to more than £93bn ($114bn) (PDF).

That is up sharply from the figure of 58 billion pounds ($70bn) recorded in 2015, when former Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron and his then-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne pushed to build stronger ties with Beijing, saying the UK would be China’s “best partner in the West”.

However, despite an uptick in trade, the “golden era” in relations predicted by the pair at the time has failed to materialise.

Instead, successive Conservative Party governments have clashed with China amid concerns over Beijing’s tightening of its grip on the former British colony Hong Kong as well as alleged cyberattacks on an array of international targets and human rights abuses against the minority Uighur group.

More recently, London has also taken issue with the Chinese government’s outwardly sympathetic approach to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and military posturing around Taiwan.

Mitter said ties had reached something of a “median point” under Johnson’s leadership, during which London moved to ramp up its security related to Beijing, but also attempted to promote trade links with China as it ushered the UK into a post-Brexit era.

“But I think we are moving into an era where the relationship between almost all Western countries, including the UK, and China are going to become chillier,” he added.

Pledges to confront China

The two candidates in the running to succeed Johnson have indicated that will be the case under their watch.

Sunak, the outgoing prime minister’s former chancellor, has warned China and its ruling Communist Party leaders now pose “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”.

The 42-year-old has said that, if elected, he will build an “international alliance of free nations to tackle Chinese cyberthreats” and empower Britain’s security agencies to “counter Chinese industrial espionage“.

He has also promised to close all 30 of the UK’s Confucius Institutes, which promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture, arguing all UK government spending on Mandarin language learning at schools is channelled through the organisations, boosting Beijing’s soft power.

Meanwhile, Truss has pledged to clamp down on Chinese-owned companies such as TikTok, the popular video-sharing app headed by Beijing-based technology firm ByteDance Ltd.

The 47-year-old, the UK’s serving foreign secretary and the frontrunner to succeed Johnson, has also warned against Britain becoming “strategically dependent” on Beijing, saying the European energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had demonstrated the perils of such overreliance.

Einar Tangen, a senior international fellow at the Taihe Institute, a Beijing-headquartered think-tank, said the positions taken by the pair indicated increasing alignment between political leaders in the UK and the United States, its key ally, over the need to confront China.

“China is trying to navigate extremely stormy waters … they understand the paradigm shift that is happening … because of the waning world order that was established post World War II,” Tangen told Al Jazeera.

“In these troubled waters … the UK is a shoal that they are watching and trying to avoid,” he added.

“But I don’t know that it really matters, Britain is rather infinitesimal when compared to the US – and when you have a huge dragon next to your door, a couple of barking dogs aren’t necessarily going to change the equation.”

‘Irresponsible remarks’

It remains to be seen whether talk will turn into action when the leadership election reaches its conclusion on September 5.

Whoever becomes prime minister will need to carefully balance addressing perceived wrongdoings and security risks against safeguarding valuable trade links for the UK economy, which is currently beset by soaring inflation and a cost of living crisis.

But Beijing appears to be taking the threatened measures seriously and has not taken kindly to Sunak and Truss’s rhetoric. It has urged both to refrain from “hyping up the so-called ‘China threat'”.

“I want to make it clear to certain British politicians that making irresponsible remarks about China … cannot solve one’s own problems,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on July 25, hours after Truss and Sunak clashed over their plans for dealing with Beijing during a fractious televised debate.

Further terse words followed this week when Truss was scolded for having summoned Beijing’s ambassador to the UK to explain his government’s actions towards Taiwan in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to the island, which China claims as its own territory.

“No foreign country, [the] UK included, has the right to meddle with the internal affairs of China,” the Chinese Embassy in the UK said in a statement after Zheng Zeguang met with senior British officials.

‘Chillier relationship’

Engen said the exchanges revealed Beijing’s mounting concern about the possibility of the UK and other Western countries – led by the US – effectively “ganging up” on China.

But he also suggested that Sunak and Truss may have their hands tied economically when it comes to dealing with Beijing.

“They can pivot away from China. But where are they going to sell their exports? And where are they going to get their imports?” Engen said.

“Are they going to impose tariffs at a time when those tariffs will actively increase the value of the cost of living at a time when inflation is running rampant?”

Mitter, for his part, said it appeared clear that a more adversarial period in Sino-British relations was on the horizon, albeit one with pockets of opportunity for possible cooperation, such as via London’s role as an international currency trading hub.

“Some of the language that existed several years ago about golden years of cooperation between China and the UK is not heard at all any more, and is extremely unlikely to come back,” he said.

“But even though I think in Beijing, there will have been a realisation that China and the UK are likely to have a chillier relationship in the coming years, there will be areas of mutual concern and interest that will keep the relationship going, at least in some specific areas.”

Source: Al Jazeera