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China policy is now public policy and needs to be treated accordingly

Oliver Yule-Smith

14 September 2022

Liz Truss has become Britain’s next Prime Minister but across the Summer, both the final two Conservative leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak had been falling over themselves to furnish their China hawk credentials.

In July, Sunak declared China the “biggest threat” to the UK, whilst vowing to close Confucius Institutes, long claimed to be a tool of influence for Beijing, within the country. Meanwhile, Truss has pointed to her support from Tory China hawk grandees, like Ian Duncan Smith. More recently, as Foreign Secretary, she summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain his actions over the “increasingly aggressive behaviour and rhetoric from Beijing”, following US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. There is something to say for Stuart Lau and Eleni Courea’s claim that in the race to become the next Prime Minister, “only China hawks need apply”.


But it is worth stepping back to consider the wider significance of this present moment in British politics. For the first time since the 1906 General Election, China has emerged as an important electoral issue. Claims that Arthur Balfour’s Conservative and Liberal Unionist Party use of Chinese indentured labour for post-Boer War reconstruction drew charges of “Chinese slavery” and contributed to a landslide victory for Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal Party. The rhetoric not only tapped into the strongly moralistic sentiment of the age, it also rode a wave of Sinophobia galvanised by a deluge of ‘Yellow Peril’ invasion scare literature. But China’s emergence onto the British political landscape was a flash-in-the-pan. With China’s own political scene mired in a state of revolution, famine and disorder; a sustained public conversation in Britain failed to materialise. Britain’s China policy in 20th century has instead been the near exclusive purview of successive generations of Whitehall Mandarins and China hands.


British politics is now once again returning to a public conversation about China, however, it is doing so from a place of looking not at China’s weakness but its strength. Polling suggests that 60% of people in Britain actively now see the ‘Chinese government as a force for bad in the world’. Even accepting the claim that foreign policy rarely registers top of the minds for voters, discussions about China feed into many of the country’s most pressing challenges. Another poll from the Central European Institute of Asian Studies and Chatham House showed that British perceptions of China worsened significantly during the pandemic, with ‘COVID-19’; ‘communism’, ‘large population’, ‘food’ and ‘technology’ all being words most commonly associated with China amongst the British public. Evidenced more concretely, Chinese General Nuclear participation in UK nuclear project Hinkley Point C and Huawei’s participation in UK 5G infrastructure faced widespread public backlash.


Matching rhetoric with practical solutions will, however, incur heavy costs. This is particularly prevalent in the midst of a cost of inflation crisis and talking of a looming global recession. According to the Office of for National Statistics, in 2021 the UK imported £63.6bn of goods from China, some 13.3% of all goods imports, making China the UK’s largest importing partner. While a recession may stifle demand for imports more broadly, the fact that these imports were largely machinery and transport equipment, as well as office machinery and telecoms equipment – which includes phones and laptops, suggests that these areas could be more insulated from a demand shock. This is to say nothing of the fact that as of May 2021, China owns £143bn worth of UK assets. Calls for “onshoring” and a more bullish industrial strategy as a solution to the country’s economic woes will involve conversations about what can realistically be decoupled from China’s supply chain and what cannot. While a voter might be in favour of a more aggressive China policy, that same voter might take issue with paying more for a new phone or laptop. Even beyond economic crisis, tackling the climate crisis will require consideration of China’s role in decarbonisation. According to one analysis, China alone generated about the same amount of CO2 as the next four countries combined. With Chinese company China Baowu, the world’s top steelmaker, putting more CO2 into the atmosphere in 2020 as Pakistan.


For the first time, this public rhetoric is now feeding into higher-level strategic and policy discussions about China. The 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy framing of China as a “systemic challenge” was supposed to provide flexibility. It called for a positive trade and investment relationship and working together on transnational challenges, while ensuring the UK’s national security and values were protected. This articulation has, however, come crashing into the comments of the candidates themselves. Liz Truss has pledged to reopen the Integrated Review to re-examine the positions of the document on China and Russia. Rishi Sunak’s claim that China is the “biggest threat” to the UK would have also required a reorientation of a number of assumptions laid down in the review had he become Prime Minister.


Yet whether Prime Minister Liz Truss re-opens the Integrated Review or publishes a dedicated China strategy – as called for in certain quarters – policymakers will have to be aware that, unlike in previous historical periods, it will be conducted within the crucible of public opinion. This is not to call for a majoritarian China policy, led by the vagaries of the public mood, but to recognise that whatever the final product of this reassessment of China policy will need to be a dialogue, not a dictation, of Britain’s stance on China. Policymakers might justifiably conclude that a more hawkish response on China is warranted, but this approach will come with costs which need to be communicated. Explanation is a crucial, if understated, facet of any effective foreign policy, but it is particularly important here because it is the lynchpin of a sustainable approach to an international actor whose re-emergence we are only just beginning to reckon with.

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