At the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made his first major foreign policy speech since taking office. Mr Sunak declared the golden age of UK-China relations to be over, along with the “naïve idea that trade would lead to social and political reform”, signalling a break from the Cameron-Osborne pro-China regime.
The end of the “golden era” statement grabbed headlines as intended, and as widely expected, the Prime Minister pledged an evolutionary approach, arguing for “robust pragmatism” over “grand rhetoric” concerning international competitors. But what does this mean?
Sunak’s challenge in China policy is that he wants to take the UK back to an earlier, less confrontational era of UK-China relations. But events and forces outside his control mean he will struggle. Rishi Sunak is striving to serve his party and the international community in commending Beijing for sliding into an “even greater authoritarianism” Xi Jinping regime. However, the Prime Minister didn’t go as far as to classify China to be a threat. Sunak, instead, suggested a change in diplomatic relations while also confirming the UK’s defence and security strategy for the next decade in the Integrated Review, which would be updated in the new year.
The key to Sunak’s statements was that the UK needed to take a “longer-term view on China” – urging the West to collectively “manage this sharpening competition, including with diplomacy and engagement”. This view attempted to tie together the new Prime Minister’s desire to foster the best economic environment possible while taking into account the recent events in China.
The move comes following a worsening of UK-China relations and US-China relations. Mr Sunak and, indeed, Mr Biden both had hoped to move the relationship onto a better footing. Still, the events at G20, the snubs, the ongoing Chinese protests, and the Chinese recalcitrance on Ukraine have meant the opposite has happened.
This has left Sunak with tensions on the Conservative benches with some China-sceptic MPs in the party concerned. Specifically, the “robust pragmatism” line in the speech was criticised by former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith – suggesting that China had become a “clear and present threat to us and our allies”, with him going on to say, “I wonder if robust pragmatism now sounds more and more like appeasement. He is one of several backbenchers pushing for a tougher line.
Where this an evolving situation – it will be interesting to see how Rishi Sunak manages this conflicting relationship and the tense politics of perception.