Sunak Backs Away From Calling China a ‘Systemic Threat’, Doubles Down on Desires to Expand Trade

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak applauds a speaker during the Lord Mayor's Banquet at Guildhall in central London on November 28, 2022. - The Lord Mayor's Banquet is held in honour of the outgoing Lord Mayor and is hosted by his successor the new Lord Mayor of the City of …
DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

The “Golden Era” of Sino-British relations has come to an end but the UK should not label Communist China as a threat or stop trading with the East-Asian economic powerhouse, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a somewhat confusing foreign policy speech this week.

Delivering his first address to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet as prime minister on Monday evening, Rishi Sunak declared that the “Golden Era” of relations with Beijing were over, referencing the close ties sought by former Tory PM David Cameron and his right-hand man George Osbourne. This policy saw imports from China to the UK soar from £35.5 billion in 2012 to £65.9 last year when the British economy had a £38.4 billion trade deficit with the country.

Speaking from the dinner in London, Mr Sunak said of China: “Let’s be clear, the so-called ‘golden era’ is over, along with the naïve idea that trade would lead to social and political reform. But nor should we rely on simplistic Cold War rhetoric. We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism.”

“China is consciously competing for global influence using all the levers of state power,” the PM added.

Though Prime Minister Sunak said that the era of cosy relations with the communist dictatorship has come to a close, he in fact used his speech to distance himself from the hardline approach to China preferred by his predecessor Liz Truss, who had reportedly planned to label China a “threat” for the first time before she was ousted from office in a coup conducted by Sunak alongside his closely China-tied co-conspirator Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

In an apparent shot against Truss, Sunak said: “We can’t depend on Cold War arguments or approaches, or mere sentimentality about the past. So we will make an evolutionary leap in our approach.

“This means being stronger in defending our values and the openness on which our prosperity depends. It means delivering a stronger economy at home, as the foundation of our strength abroad. And it means standing up to our competitors, not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism.”

The speech went on to suggest that the UK should attempt to “have its cake and eat it too”, with Sunak saying that it is correct for the British press and the Parliament to criticise China for its human rights abuses in Hong Kong or Xinjiang, but that it is important for Britain to continue trading with the country.

It remains to be seen if Beijing will appreciate such a line. Indeed, responding to the speech, a spokesman from the Chinese Embassy in the UK said that Britain should “retreat from its colonial mindset” and “discard prejudice and stop smearing China”. The spokesman went on to say that the UK should “not dance to the US’ tune or set obstacles in the way of developing China-UK relations.”

Still, the state-run mouthpiece Global Times newspaper said that “the ball is in the UK’s court to revive bilateral relations,” saying that the government must first solve its “domestic problems” before it can “resume its traditional pragmatic diplomacy.”

The propaganda outlet appeared to be suggesting that it realises that Mr Sunak may need to pay lip service about caring about human rights issues to appease the growing section of the public that is critical of the regime in Beijing. Indeed, the same news outlet had all but endorsed Sunak during the summer leadership contest to replace Boris Johnson, hailing him as the only candidate with a “pragmatic view of developing balanced ties with China.”

This is not without justification, with Sunak previously arguing that the UK should seek to expand its cooperation with the communist nation on “global issues like health, ageing, climate and biodiversity.”

Sunak may also have a personal stake in expanding trade ties with China, with his wife’s family business, Indian tech giant Infosys, owning two branches in China, reportedly netting the company £134 million last year.

Commenting on the speech from Sunak, Brexit leader Nigel Farage noted: “There never was a ‘golden era’ between the UK and China. All it has ever been is the Tories selling out our country — as they always do.”

Follow Kurt Zindulka on Twitter here @KurtZindulka

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