Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has softened the UK’s attitude towards China, moving away from his predecessor Liz Truss’s decision to label the country a “threat”.
As chancellor, Sunak sought to deepen economic ties between the two countries by proposing the resumption of the UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue, an annual trade and investment summit that last took place in 2019. The proposed event was later cancelled.
Since he became prime minister, Sunak has sought a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy than Truss, with a focus on strengthening trading and economic ties rather than a primarily values-based approach.
Speaking at the G20 summit of world leaders in Indonesia, Sunak said China “unequivocally” posed a “systemic challenge” to the UK’s values and interests, adding that it was “undoubtedly the biggest state-based threat to our economic security”.
But unlike Truss, Sunak said he still wanted to have a working relationship with China, describing it as “an indisputable fact of the global economy”.
He added, “We’re not going to be able to resolve shared global challenges like climate change or public health, or indeed actually dealing with Russia and Ukraine, without having a dialogue with them.”
Sunak said the UK would still look to defend itself against China’s economic threats. “That’s why it’s important that we take the powers that we need to defend ourselves . . . the National Security Investment Act is a good example of that,” he added.
The prime minister said his position was “highly aligned with our allies”, noting recent national security strategies from the US and Australia that adopted similar rhetoric.
But he left open the possibility of meeting China’s president Xi Jinping in Bali, saying: “President Xi is here and like all the other leaders; hopefully, I will have a chance to talk to him too.”
Truss, who beat Sunak in this summer’s Conservative party leadership race, had adopted a more hostile stance on China, seeking to designate it as a “threat” — an upgrade from Boris Johnson’s classification of a “systemic competitor”.
Truss ordered a rewrite of the UK’s integrated review of security and defence policy, led by Downing Street’s chief foreign policy adviser Professor John Bew. The review is continuing under Sunak but is likely to take a stance on China that falls between those of Johnson and Truss.
Sunak did not deny that the UK could arm Taiwan if it faced further aggression from China in future, saying: “We’re considering all these things as part of the refresh of the integrated review.”
On Taiwan, he added: “There should be no unilateral change to the status and there should be a peaceful resolution to that situation. We stand ready to support Taiwan as we do in standing up to Chinese aggression.”