UCL Policy Lab


Sunak, Truss, and the China Cold War Ratchet

18 November 2022

Sunak's call for a "pragmatic balanced relationship" nevertheless signals a shift in UK-China relations, says Richard McMahon

Rishi Sunak standing outside Downing Street

A planned meeting this week between Rishi Sunak and Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Indonesia was cancelled after a missile blast in Poland disrupted scheduled priorities. After a summer leadership election, a disastrous mini budget, and a timely resignation, the Conservative Party may have elected a leader in Rishi Sunak to last longer than 44 days – and Sunak’s aborted encounter with the Chinese President was due to be the first in-person meeting between the two nation’s leaders since 2018.

Interestingly, when Sunak and Truss locked horns in the summer, China policy became important for the first time in a Conservative or Labour leadership contest. Rishi Sunak stopped advocating engagement with Beijing, despite China having become a key investment source and Britain’s third most important trade partner. This echoes US President Joe Biden’s inability to relax Donald Trump’s confrontational public stance towards China. Acceptable opinion in the West is shifting like a ratchet, a device to ensure movement in one direction only, towards narratives of China Threat and a New Cold War.

While Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2020-22, Sunak called for a pragmatic ‘balanced relationship’ with China, emphasising economic opportunities. In December 2021, promising a ‘complete sea change’ in relations with Beijing, he agreed to revive a series of high-level annual China-UK trade dialogues, which had been shelved in 2019 in protest at Beijing’s clampdown on democracy in Hong Kong.

This may have been the last gasp of the embattled ‘Golden Era’ of the UK as ‘China’s best partner in the West’, declared in 2015 by Conservative PM David Cameron and his chancellor George Osbourne. Cameron’s successors, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, desperate after Brexit to cultivate international economic connections beyond Europe, refused, as Johnson put it, to ‘pitchfork away’ Chinese investment. Chinese state media quipped that Johnson’s ‘only redeeming feature’ was being ‘personally moderate on Beijing’.

Economic considerations encouraged similar moderation in Europe and especially Germany. Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a very welcome reassurance at Davos in 2017, three days before Donald Trump’s investiture as US President, that China remained committed to globalisation and multilateral global governance. In 2020, the EU and China agreed a temporary solution to Trump’s sabotage of the World Trade Organisation’s dispute settlement system and, during the transition to Joe Biden’s presidency, signed a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).

Since 2019 however, Washington’s intensifying demands on allies to help repel a perceived Chinese threat to American and Western global leadership, along with Beijing’s increasingly assertive and confrontational nationalism, repressive authoritarianism and failure to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine, have steadily ratcheted Western policy away from engagement. The CAI ratification collapsed amid tit-for-tat sanctions in response to China’s persecution of its Uyghur minority. The EU and UK officially labelled China a ‘systemic rival’ and ‘the biggest state-based threat to the UK's economic security’ respectively. China security worries were a key impetus for bothjurisdictions to introduce American-style investment screening mechanisms. Theresa May briefly reviewed Chinese investment in Hinkley Point power station, but Johnson blocked further nuclear investments and excluded the Chinese tech giant Huawei from UK 5G mobile infrastructure contracts.

Unlike Sunak, Truss has long been a China hawk. She clashed with the Foreign Office in 2020 about whether British courts could label persecution of Uyghurs as genocide and used the term in private when she became Foreign Secretary in 2021. As Foreign Secretary, she agreed the AUKUS agreement, directed against China, and escalated a sanctions duel by helping to bar the Chinese ambassador from entering Parliament. As Russia prepared to invade Ukraine in January 2022, Truss criticised Chinese ‘economic coercion’ against Australia and Lithuania and equated Russia and China as ‘global aggressors’, seeking ‘to export dictatorship’. In April, she warned against naïve engagement, as China ‘rapidly’ intensified its military challenge to ‘European strategic interest’. She threatened Beijing with economic sanctions like those on Russia if it did not ‘play by the rules’. Truss called for a ‘more institutionalized’ G7 to act as an ‘economic NATO’ against Chinese economic coercion and for NATO to become more global. In June, she suggested arming Taiwan.

Her leadership campaign promised to crack down on Chinese tech giants such as TikTok and to mobilise ‘freedom-loving’ Commonwealth democracies against Beijing’s ‘growing malign influence’. Her camp contrasted this with Sunak’s dovishness, gleefully publicising a Chinese state newspaper’s description of him as the only ‘pragmatic candidate’. Exploiting her office to campaign, Truss summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain Beijing’s missile-rattling after Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.

Sunak’s leadership campaign recognised that his engagement with China had become an electoral liability. In a ‘daring’ ‘pre-emptive strike’ therefore, he attacked Truss for helping establish a third of the UK’s Confucius Institutes while she was an education minister. Conservative Party China hawks see these language and culture centres as Chinese state propaganda instruments. Sunak promised to ‘face down China’, the ‘largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity’. It was ‘propping up Putin’s fascist invasion of Ukraine’, ‘stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities’. Its leaders ‘torture, detain and indoctrinate’ within China, bully Taiwan and have ‘continually rigged the global economy’. PM Sunak would combat Chinese ‘soft power’, technological threats, spying and acquisitions of ‘strategically sensitive tech firms’ by closing all Confucius centres, building a ‘NATO-style’ international ‘alliance of free nations’ and strengthening MI5 and investment screening.

The ratchet had moved decisively forward.

Both candidates entangle China hawkishness into Brexiter narratives of ‘global Britain’ as a leader in the free world, Nato, the Commonwealth or G7 (but not Europe). Truss adds nationalist culture war rhetoric of re-embracing British imperial glory. The West, ‘for so long embarrassed about its history and wealth, should start trusting itself again’, including in China policy.

More broadly, polls show that the public, and especially Conservative voters, now worry about China at least as much as Russia. Only 19% of people ‘support Chinese economic engagement and financial investment’. Parliamentary debates, the creation of at least three China-focused groups, and multiple backbench rebellions suggest Conservative MPs share these concerns.

But has the ratchet moved irreversibly forward?

China experts and even some Conservative China hawks criticise ‘simplistic, opportunistic and at times naïve’ ‘headline first, policy later’ posturing.  Both candidates for example want to close centres of China scholarship for being too pro-Beijing, at a time when ‘the UK desperately needs more expertise on China.

But does current campaigning indicate how the winning candidate will govern? In September, will they allow a Chinese-led takeover of Newport Wafer Fab, a key British semiconductor maker? Will they support a potential UN report describing China’s persecution of Uyghurs as genocide?

Pollsters identify Tory Brexiters as Britain’s most China-sceptic voters but the victor will never again face election exclusively by Conservative Party members, an exceptionally right-wing and pro-Brexit 0.3% of Britain’s adults.

Amid a cost-of-living crisis, soaring inflation and economic relationships degraded by Brexit, both candidates insisted on maintaining ties with China.

Richard McMahon is Associate Lecturer in EU Politics.