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

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LONDON – Who is the toughest with Beijing?

It’s one of the central questions driving the competition to choose Britain’s next prime minister, as Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, and Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, scramble to convince Conservative Party members that they are real Chinese hawks.

This is a contest in which Truss, the favorite, has a clear advantage.

While heading the Foreign Office for the past two years, she has carefully positioned herself as an outspoken critic of China, privately accusing Beijing of committing genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang and calling out the UK to develop a “network of freedom” with other democracies.

Sunak, on the other hand, took a more ambivalent approach. As Britain’s first finance minister, he was notably keen to foster closer economic ties with China and called for the resumption of high-level government talks this year.

During a TV debate on the BBC’s leadership on Monday, Truss accused Sunak of seeking closer ties as recently as last month. Sunak had tried to outwit her the night before by suggesting that the Foreign Office had “rolled out the red carpet” in Beijing under Truss’ watch.

POLITICO has spoken to more than half a dozen Chinese conservative hawks, activists, political pundits and government officials who have all said privately that they view Sunak and Truss’s approaches to China as simplistic, opportunistic and sometimes naive.

But harsh rhetoric from both sides suggests that whoever wins will usher in a difficult new phase in China-British relations.

Truss talks tough

Eager to stay on the front foot, Truss— the big favorite to win the contest– unveiled a new policy on Wednesday evening aimed at strengthening the Commonwealth as a bulwark against the rise of China.

She already enjoys the support of some of China’s most prominent Conservative Party hawks. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader who successfully orchestrated the rebellion against plans to involve telecoms company Huawei in building the UK’s 5G network, is one of his most vocal supporters. There is speculation that he will be offered a China-related job in his government.

Bob Seely, another prominent conservative who has long advocated for a tougher approach to China, also backs Truss. “We cannot make the same mistake with China as with Russia,” Seely said. “Rishi is moving [toward taking a harder line] and it’s really good to see that. But Liz, for me, captures this question more and sees it as a battle for civilization, between free and open societies and closed and oppressive societies.

Privately, even Truss’ supporters say her stance on China was always designed to boost her popularity within the party, but point out that she got there much earlier than Sunak. “Liz’s position is at least much older than Rishi’s,” said a conservative adviser.

But critics worry about his notoriously maverick tendencies– notably his suggestion in June that the UK should learn from the lessons of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and prepare to arm Taiwan to ensure “it has the capacity to defend itself” against China .

“Liz Truss terrified people,” a conservative official said, saying the Taiwan incident had “instantly undermined any credibility she had built” and proven that she was taking a “title first, politics second” approach. ”.

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

The center is a Foreign Ministry agency accused by some of being too pro-Beijing. But others point out that his job of maintaining informal dialogues with China to inform the UK’s understanding of his thinking is all the more essential when bilateral relations are poor.

“I’m not sure cutting the main body to train officials on China is the right approach,” a conservative official said.

Sunak’s Change

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

In a speech to financiers in the City of London last year, he hailed China as “one of the most important economies in the world” and insisted that the UK “can continue in confidently establish an economic relationship with China in a secure and mutually beneficial manner. ”

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 offset a previously dovish stance – raised eyebrows even among people supportive of his campaign.

A section of Chinese conservative hawks – themselves a diverse group – supported him, however. Alicia Kearns, co-chair of the China Research Group, supports her campaign. Kearns is a close ally of Tom Tugendhat, who hasn’t endorsed anyone since folding his own leadership bid, but is seen as more ideologically aligned with Sunak.

Of note, Sunak recently adopted a policy championed by Kearns and Tugendhat to shut down the Confucius Institutes, educational programs seen by critics as an arm of the Chinese government.

Harsh rhetoric from both sides suggests whoever wins will usher in a difficult new phase in China-UK relations | Jérôme Favre/EPA-EFE

But the fact that he pushed 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 Joint UK-China Economic and Trade Commission, both of which were suspended following Beijing’s crackdown on protests in Hong Kong in 2019.

This came despite Beijing’s decision to sanction several MPs and members of the House of Lords for what it called their “lies and misinformation” about human rights abuses in Xinjiang. A Conservative adviser said that made Sunak “weaker than the EU” on China – a truly damning accusation in conservative circles. Brussels has abandoned its plan to conclude a trade agreement with Beijing after the sanction of its MEPs.

In addition, a leaked Treasury document obtained by The Times on Wednesday suggested that as part of the UK-China economic and financial dialogue, Sunak was set to welcome the listing of Chinese companies on the London Stock Exchange and to invite the China Investment Corporation to set up an office in the UK, Sunak told the newspaper that he had canceled the forum for security reasons.

Future relationships

Leadership disputes have not gone unnoticed in Beijing. A cartoon published in China’s state-run Global Times on Wednesday depicted Truss and Sunak competing to be “China’s biggest basher”, while ignoring soaring inflation and the global energy crisis. A comment from China Daily hinted that the winning candidate might want to appoint a “China Hate Secretary”.

And it’s certainly true that given the way the competition has unfolded, anyone who enters Downing Street on September 6 will at least have to pretend to abide by a significantly stricter policy than previously prevailed.

During his three years as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson repeatedly declared himself a Sinophile– including during a recent phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping– and pushed for close economic ties. Johnson had to be repeatedly dragged into a tougher position by his more hawkish parliamentary party.

Sunak had been largely on the same page when he was Johnson’s chancellor, and if he won the leadership he is not expected to stray from the current approach. “He would probably like a working relationship with China, but he will have some repairs to make,” said a government official who works on China policy.

Truss, on the other hand, should transmit its signals from a much more aggressive position. During the leadership race, she reportedly told lawmakers that she would officially recognize the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide.

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

Ministers had long been preparing to release a major strategy for China, but towards the end of his term as prime minister, Johnson abruptly decided to shelve it, three people with knowledge of the development told POLITICO. “It was to be passed by the Cabinet and then suddenly Boris decided not to go ahead,” one person said. Some who helped draft the document hope it will see the light of day under the next prime minister.

Luke de Pulford, co-ordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said: “From the inherently contradictory way in which China is treated in the Integrated Review – a key UK government foreign policy document – to the differences in approach between departments, deep, knowledgeable , and strategic reform is long overdue.

In race to succeed Boris Johnson only Chinese hawks should
During his three years as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has 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” how the United States handles its own relationship with China. “Americans talk tough, but behind the scenes they have a lot of lines of communication,” they said. “They have engagements everywhere.”

“Meanwhile, because we can’t have good government-to-government relations, we can’t have good informal relations. It’s as if anything related to China is seen as somehow agreeing with them or tolerating them – at best naïve, at worst in cahoots.

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