London, United Kingdom – The short-tempered leadership election to determine the UK’s next prime minister has seen Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss clash over a range of issues, from how to fix the country’s ailing economy to each other’s political profiles.
But on one issue, those the Conservatives hope look to get along – the need to confront what they say is the growing geopolitical threat posed by China.
Both have promised strong action against Beijing if they succeed outgoing leader Boris Johnson, with each competing to adopt the hardest line on how best to contain international influence. their growing economy.
Their stance suggests that the “golden era” of Sino-British relations heralded by British politicians for less than 10 years has finally ended after increasing conflict in recent years, analysts say. recent years on the fate of Hong Kong, spyconcerns about cybersecurity and human rights, among other issues.
“The fact that both Sunak and Truss have tried to do their best to take the hardest line on China is indicative of a move in the right direction, regardless of which of them becomes prime minister,” said Rana Mitter. , professor of history and politics. of modern China at Oxford University, told Al Jazeera.
“It looks like the security factor will probably be more stressed under Sunak or Truss and the commercial factor will probably be lowered,” he said.
‘Best Partner in the West’
China is the UK’s third largest trading partner, accounting for nearly seven per cent of its global trade.
Annual trade in goods and services between the two countries now amounts to more than 93 billion pounds ($114 billion).PDF).
This is a sharp increase from the £58 billion ($70 billion) figure recorded in 2015, when former British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and then Prime Minister George Osborne pushed to build a relationship. closer ties with Beijing, saying the UK would be China’s “Best Partner in the West”.
However, despite the increase in trade, the “golden era” of relationships that the couple predicted at the time did not materialize.
Instead, successive Conservative governments have clashed with China amid concerns about Beijing’s its squeeze on the former British colony, Hong Kong as well as alleged cyberattacks on a variety of international targets and human rights violations against minority group of Uighurs.
Mitter said relations had reached a “midpoint” under Johnson’s leadership, during which time London moved to increase security in relation to Beijing, but also tried to forge trade links. with China in bringing the UK into the post-Brexit era.
“But I think we are entering an era where relations between most Western countries, including Britain and China, will become colder,” he added.
Committed to Confronting China
Two candidates running to succeed Johnson have indicated that will be the case for them.
Sunak, the outgoing former prime minister, has warning China and its ruling Communist Party leaders now pose “the greatest threat to Britain and the security and prosperity of the world this century”.
The 42-year-old said that, if elected, he would build an “international coalition of free nations to tackle China’s cyber threats” and empower the security agencies. British security to “against China” industrial spy“.
He has also promised to close all 30 of the UK’s Confucius Institutes, which promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture, arguing that all UK government spending on language learning Mandarin in schools is channeled through institutions, promoting Beijing’s soft power.
Meanwhile, Truss has pledged to clamp down on Chinese-owned companies like TikTok, the popular video-sharing app run by tech company ByteDance Ltd. Headquartered in Beijing.
The 47-year-old, the UK’s current foreign secretary and lead successor to Johnson, has also warned against Britain becoming “strategically dependent” on Beijing, saying that European energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed the dangers of such over-compliance.
Einar Tangen, a senior international fellow at the Taihe Institute, a Beijing-based think tank, said the positions the pair have taken show the growing alignment between key leaders. ruled in England and USAits important ally, because of the need to confront China.
Tangen told Al Jazeera: “China is trying to navigate extremely stormy waters… they understand well the paradigm shift is taking place… because of the weakened world order established after the Second World War.
“In these difficult waters… the UK is a shoal that they are watching and trying to avoid,” he added.
“But I didn’t know that really mattered, Britain is pretty much inferior to the US – and when you have a giant dragon next to your door, a few barking dogs doesn’t necessarily change the equation.”
It remains to be seen whether the talk will translate into action when the leadership election comes to an end on September 5.
Whoever becomes prime minister will need to carefully balance dealing with perceived misconduct and security risks against protecting valuable trade links to the economy. Great Britain, currently besieged by Inflation soars and a cost of living crisis.
But Beijing appears to be taking the intimidation measures seriously and unkindly with the rhetoric of Sunak and Truss. It urged both to refrain from “inflating the so-called ‘China threat'”.
“I would like to make it clear to some British politicians that making irresponsible remarks about China… cannot solve anyone’s own problems,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on 25. July, hours after Truss and Sunak clashed over plans to deal with Beijing in a heated televised debate.
This was followed by more concise words this week when Truss was criticized for summoning Beijing’s ambassador to the UK to explain his government’s actions towards Taiwan following a controversial visit by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. US Nancy Pelosi arrives at the island that China claims as its own territory.
“There is no foreign country, [the] Including the UK, has the right to interfere in China’s internal affairs,” the Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom said in a statement after Zheng Zeguang met with senior British officials.
Taiwan is an inseparable part of China’s territory. No foreign country, including the UK, has the right to interfere in China’s internal affairs. What the UK should do is live up to its commitment to the one China principle and regulate any behavior that goes against it.
– Chinese Embassy in the UK (@ChineseEmbinUK) August 10, 2022
Mr. Engen said the exchanges revealed Beijing’s growing concern about the ability of Britain and other Western countries – led by the US – to effectively “catch” China.
But he also suggested that Sunak and Truss may be economically tied when it comes to dealing with Beijing.
“They can pivot away from China. But where will they sell their exports? And where will they get the imports? ‘ Engen said.
“Will they impose tariffs at a time when those taxes will positively increase the value of the cost of living at a time when inflation is on the rise?”
For his part, Mitter said it was clear that a more confrontational phase in Sino-British relations was ahead, although one with many opportunities for cooperation, such as London’s role as a mediator. international currency exchange.
“Some of the languages that existed a few years ago about the golden years of China-UK cooperation are no longer heard, and are very unlikely to return,” he said. speak.
“But although I think in Beijing, there will be a perception that China and the UK are likely to have a colder relationship in the coming years, there will be areas of mutual interest and interests. will keep the relationship going, at least in some specific areas. “