Opinion | Rishi Sunak's China Policy is an incoherent Mess
By Tom Fowdy
"The golden age of relations with China is over"- declared British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The statement, of which made headlines around the world, came amidst a foreign policy speech he made where he called for "pragmatism" in handling ties with Beijing. Warning against a Cold War, he also stated that engagement with China was essential, although acknowledged the prevailing geopolitical climate was one of strategic competition between states.
Not surprisingly the speech satisfied nobody. Although it sought to draw a distinction between that past era, of which was defined by David Cameron and George Osbourne, it was lambasted by Anti-China hawks as being "weak" and constituting a form of "appeasement". The opposition Labour Party then proceeded to accuse the Prime Minister of U-turning on China, with Rishi having framed himself as an ultra-China hawk during the Conservative Party leadership election earlier this year, hyping up Beijing as the biggest state-based threat to the UK's security.
Since taking office, and following the downfall of Liz Truss, Sunak has obviously toned down his rhetoric regarding China. However, actions speak louder than words. Although calling for engagement with Beijing, Sunak's government has vetoed the takeover of the Newport Wafer Fab, booted China out of a nuclear power project, sent a minister to Taiwan and vowed to close all Confucius Institutes. These are hardly the words of a reconciliatory government taking China ties seriously, which for all intents and purposes have rendered his recent rhetoric hollow and a mess of contradictions.
This poses the question, does Rishi Sunak actually control his China policy? It's a serious consideration. The Prime Minister, as was Boris Johnson, finds himself desperately seeking to appease an ultra-right-wing faction in his party of which has replaced Euroscepticism with Sinophobia. Having destroyed Britain's relations with Europe, they have now started on China, and was characteristic of the past three decades, have continually forced the government to show a tough posture and sought to undermine practical national interests with a preference for ideology.
Second of all, Britain's China policy is made in Washington and not in London. The government of Boris Johnson was initially pro-engagement with China and understood it as a critical post-Brexit trading and investment partner, until the US decided it was unacceptable and piled pressure on the UK to change course. Multiple Chinese deals which Britain approved, including Huawei's participation in 5G, and the takeover of the Newport Wafer Fab, were deemed in the national interest until of course, American objections decided they weren't, leading to U-turns on both occasions whereby "national security" risks that did not exist before were suddenly "discovered".
Because of this, the premise of continued engagement between China and Britain is dubious at best and pretentious at worse. A Prime Minister who has opened his tenure in office by showing nothing but hostility in practice is now attempting to gesture pragmatism, and the product is a policy which appears to be riddled with contradictions, sits in no man's land and annoys both sides of the debate. The British economy is currently in a very desperate situation. Incomes are shrinking, everyday costs and bills are skyrocketing, while GDP is already technically in a state of recession. In such a scenario, an outright confrontation with China would be disastrous.
But for China, this is hardly a reconciliation, this recent history of U-turns and contradictions have left Beijing with reason to trust Rishi Sunak and his government in good faith. What after all, is the point of putting effort into a Britain who wants to make deals, but then simply later scraps them at Washington's behest? The United Kingdom has ultimately taken a self-defeating, short-sighted and hostile approach to China, which despite being a so-called "global Britain" has firmly demonstrated the country's lack of strategic independence and clarity in its own national interests.
Thus, until Rishi is prepared to show real leadership and initiative in forging a productive UK-China relationship, there is no engagement or "constructive pragmatism" to be had, because the reality confers the opposite as the country continues to go off the rails by an ideological, ultra-nationalistic and incompetent government, across the board.
The author is a well-seasoned writer and analyst with a large portfolio related to China topics, especially in the field of politics, international relations and more. He graduated with an Msc. in Chinese Studies from Oxford University in 2018.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.
Read more articles by Tom Fowdy: