In race to succeed Boris Johnson, only Chinese hawks need to apply – POLITICO

Press play to listen to this article

LONDON—Who Is the Strongest in Beijing?

That’s one of the central questions that animates the competition to choose Britain’s next prime minister, as Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, and Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor, fall over each other to convince Conservative Party members. that they are real Chinese hawks.

It is a game in which Truss, the frontrunner, has a clear advantage.

While leading the State Department for the past two years, she has carefully positioned herself as an outspoken critic of China, personally accusing Beijing of committing genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and calling on the UK to establish a “network of freedom” with other democracies.

Sunak, on the other hand, has taken a more ambivalent approach. As the UK’s top finance minister, he was particularly keen to forge closer economic ties with China, and this year he aimed for the resumption of high-level government talks.

During a televised BBC leadership debate on Monday, Truss accused Sunak of seeking closer ties last month. Sunak had tried to outrun her the night before by suggesting that the State Department had “rolled out the red carpet” to Beijing under Truss’s supervision.

POLITICO has spoken with more than half a dozen Tory China hawks, campaigners, policy experts and government officials who all privately said they view both Sunak and Truss’s approaches to China as simplistic, opportunistic and at times naive.

But the harsh rhetoric coming from both sides suggests that whoever wins will usher in a rocky new phase in Sino-British relations.

Truss has a hard time talking

Please stay on the lead, Truss — the favorite favorite to win the match — unveiled a new policy on Wednesday night to strengthen the Commonwealth as a bulwark against China’s rise.

She already enjoys the support of some of the most prominent Chinese hawks of the Conservative Party. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader who orchestrated the successful uprising against plans to involve telecom company Huawei in building Britain’s 5G network, is one of her most vocal proponents. There is speculation that he will get a China-related job in her government.

Bob Seely, another prominent Tory who has long pushed for a tougher approach to China, also backs Truss. “We can’t make the same mistake with China as we did with Russia,” Seely said. “Rishi is moving [toward taking a harder line] and it’s very good to see that. But for me, Liz has a better grip on this issue and sees this as a struggle for civilization, between free and open societies and closed and oppressive societies.”

Privately, even Truss supporters say her Chinese attitude has always been designed to increase her popularity within the party, but point out that she was there much earlier than Sunak. “Liz’s attitude is at least a lot older than Rishi’s,” said a Tory adviser.

But critics worry about her famous maverick tendencies — not least her suggestion in June that the UK should learn lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and arm Taiwan to ensure it “can defend itself” against China.

“Liz Truss has scared people,” said a Tory official, arguing that the Taiwan incident “immediately undermined any credibility she had built” and proved she is taking a “headline first, policy later” approach.

Truss’ decision to cut funding for the Great Britain China Center this summer has also proved controversial.

The center is a State Department office that some have accused of being too pro-Beijing. But others point out that his work to maintain informal dialogues with China to inform the British understanding of his thinking is all the more important when bilateral relations are bad.

“I’m not sure if cutting the main agency for training officials in China is the right approach,” said a Tory official.

The service of Sunak

There is no doubt that when it comes to bashing China, Sunak is catching up.

In a speech to financiers last year in the City of London, he praised China as “one of the most important economies in the world” and urged that the UK “can confidently pursue an economic relationship with China in a safe, mutually beneficial manner.” economical way. ”

His statement this week that China poses “the greatest threat to Britain and the security and prosperity of the world this century” — seen as an attempt to compensate for a rather moderate stance — has resonated even with those sympathetic to raise eyebrows in his campaign.

However, some of the Tory China hawks — a diverse group themselves — have supported him. Alicia Kearns, co-chair of the China Research Group, supports his campaign. Kearns is a close ally of Tom Tugendhat, who has not supported anyone since making his own leadership attempt, but is seen as more ideologically aligned with Sunak.

It is noteworthy that Sunak recently adopted a policy championed by Kearns and Tugendhat to shut down the Confucius Institutes, educational programs that critics see as an arm of the Chinese government.

Harsh rhetoric from both sides suggests that whoever wins will usher in a new rocky phase in Sino-British relations | Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE

But his pushing for closer economic ties with Beijing earlier this year puts Sunak in a difficult position. The former chancellor sought to resume the UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue and the UK-China Joint Economic and Trade Commission, both of which had been suspended in the wake of Beijing’s counter-protests in Hong Kong in 2019.

This came despite Beijing’s decision to punish several MPs and upper house members for what it called their “lies and misinformation” about human rights violations in Xinjiang. A Tory adviser said this made Sunak “weaker than the EU” against China – a truly damning indictment in Tory circles. Brussels scrapped plans to negotiate a trade deal with Beijing after MEPs were sanctioned.

In addition, a leaked treasury document obtained by The Times on Wednesday suggested that Sunak, as part of the UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue, was poised to welcome the listing of Chinese companies on the London Stock Exchange and invite the China Investment Corporation. to an office in the United Kingdom Sunak told the newspaper that he had canceled the forum for security reasons.

Future relationships

The leadership quarrel has not gone unnoticed in Beijing. A cartoon in the Chinese state-run Global Times on Wednesday showed Truss and Sunak competing for “China’s biggest basher” while ignoring rising inflation and the global energy crisis. A commentary in China Daily mused that the winning candidate might want to appoint a “secretary of hating China”.

And it’s certainly true that, given the way the competition has gone, whoever enters Downing Street on September 6 will have to pay at least lip service to a significantly stricter policy than before.

Boris Johnson repeatedly declared himself a sinophile during his three years as prime minister – including in a recent phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping – and insisted on close economic ties. Johnson had to be dragged into a tougher stance repeatedly by his more aggressive parliamentary party.

Sunak was largely on the same page when he served as Johnson’s chancellor, and if he were to win leadership, it’s expected he wouldn’t stray far from the current approach. “He would probably like to have a functional relationship with China, but he will have some things to mend,” said a government official who deals with China policy.

Truss, on the other hand, is expected to give off her signals of a significantly more aggressive attitude. During the leadership contest, she is said to have told MPs that she would formally recognize the actions of the Chinese government in Xinjiang as genocide.

Certainly, whoever wins will have to think deeply about the UK’s China policy. Government officials and China watchers have become desperate over the government’s erratic approach in recent years.

Ministers had long been preparing for the publication of a major China strategy, but towards the end of his premiership, Johnson abruptly decided to suspend it, three people with knowledge of the development told POLITICO. “It was planned to be hired in the cabinet, but suddenly Boris decided not to go through,” said one person. Some who helped draft the document hope it will see the light of day under the next PM.

Luke de Pulford, Coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance for China, said: “From the inherently contradictory way China is treated in the Integrated Review – an important document on the UK government’s foreign policy – ​​to the differences in approach across departments, in-depth , well-informed, and strategic reforms take a long time.”

During his three years as prime minister, Boris Johnson repeatedly declared himself a sinophile | Pool photo by Toby Melville via Getty Images

A government official said Sunak and Truss would “do well to learn from” how the US manages its own relationship with China. “The Americans talk loudly, but behind the scenes they have a lot of lines of communication,” they said. “They have involvement everywhere.”

“Meanwhile here, because we can’t have good relations between governments, we can’t have good informal relations either. It’s as if anything to do with China is seen as agreeing with them or approving them in some way — naive at best, cahoots at worst.”

This article is part of For the politician

The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals that combines the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology


Exclusive, groundbreaking firsts and insights


Custom Policy Intelligence Platform


A high-level public affairs network

Leave a Comment