Why China will be the acid test for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak

The British Prime Minister initiates a change of course in his country’s China policy.

(Photo: via REUTERS)

London In his first policy speech, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promises “robust pragmatism” towards China. Sunak reportedly promised an “evolutionary leap” in British foreign policy at the traditional annual Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London on Monday night.

“That means building a stronger economy at home – because that is the basis of our strength abroad,” said the prime minister’s speech in London, “and that means defying our competitors, not with much rhetoric, but with robust pragmatism.”

Setting the course for British China policy comes at a sensitive time internationally. The protests against the corona lockdown in many Chinese cities make it difficult to (re)approach Beijing. A BBC journalist was also arrested in Shanghai and allegedly beaten.

At the same time, the US government tightened its grip on Beijing and largely banned the import and sale of IT and surveillance technology from China. Other countries, including Germany, make acquisitions of key technologies by Chinese investors more difficult.

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The British economy in particular is therefore eagerly awaiting a foreign policy announcement from the new head of government. In recent months, Sunak has given conflicting signals about how he intends to shape relations with China in the future. “I think China clearly poses a systemic threat – yes, a systemic challenge – to our values ​​and our interests,” the prime minister said ambiguously on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Bali.

British investment in China has been declining for some time

The difference between “threat” and “challenge” is more than semantic and politically difficult. Britain is in the process of updating its integrated security strategy while redefining its relationship with the Middle Kingdom. While Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, no longer wanted to see Beijing as just a rival but as a threat, Sunak now appears to be rowing back.


Previous governments also steered a zigzag course towards Beijing: while ex-prime minister David Cameron still dreamed of a “golden era” between the Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom, his successor Theresa May already distanced herself at the end of her term.

>> Also read here: Britain has gone astray – politically and economically

Tony Danker, head of the British industry association CBI, had warned in the summer that Britain would be dependent on new and old trading partners if the government in London also distanced itself economically from China. Otherwise, there is a risk of an inflationary increase in costs in global supply chains.

“But Britain is economically less dependent on China than, for example, Germany,” says David Lawrence, a foreign policy expert at the London think tank Chatham House. British investment in China has been declining for a long time. Only the global value chains are still heavily dependent on the new superpower.


However, the fact that the British government recently blocked an indirect takeover of the Nexperia chip factory in Wales by a Chinese investor on national security grounds is creating uncertainty among companies and employees. “Almost 600 workers were shocked just a month before Christmas,” said local Labor MP Ruth Jones. Nexperia is based in the Netherlands, but belongs to the Chinese Wingtech Group.

China hawks put pressure on Sunak

Sunak’s words about “robust pragmatism” are unlikely to dispel this uncertainty. China hawks among the ruling Tories fear their prime minister wants to keep the doors to the huge Chinese market open for economic reasons. “I am concerned that the current Prime Minister (…) will be seen as weak because it now appears that we are drifting towards a policy of appeasement towards China,” warned the Tories’ right-winger Iain Duncan Smith ahead of the recently planned. and then failed meeting between Sunak and China’s head of state Xi Jinping in Bali.

The mistrust of the right-wing party is based on statements made by the Prime Minister in recent times. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sunak had called for a turning point in relations with China in December 2021 and reactivated trade talks. At the time, he advocated a “balanced relationship” that should also take economic interests into account.

Then, in the summer of 2022, he suddenly called China “the biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Britain and the world” and vowed to “stand up to” Beijing.

More: Protests in parts of China against corona policy – people call for Xi to step down

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