British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said the so-called “golden age” of relations with China is over, as he vows to “evolve” the UK’s position towards the country.
In his first foreign policy speech, the prime minister said the closer economic ties of the previous decade were “naive”.
He said the UK now needed to demonstrate “robust pragmatism” against competitors, but warned against “Cold War rhetoric”, adding that China’s global importance could not be ignored.
Pressure from Conservative MPs
Sunak faced pressure from Tory MPs to toughen Britain’s stance on China.
The speech, delivered at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London, comes after protests in China over the weekend against the country’s strict anti-Covid restrictions.
Police made several arrests and a BBC journalist was detained while covering a protest in Shanghai on Sunday. He was beaten by the police during the arrest and detained for several hours.
Sunak told an audience of business leaders and foreign policy experts that in the face of the protests, China “has chosen to take tougher measures, including by assaulting a BBC journalist”.
The “golden age” of UK-China relations is over
“China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that becomes more acute as it moves toward even greater authoritarianism,” he said.
He added that the “golden age” of UK-China relations was over, along with the “naive idea” that more trade with the West would lead to Chinese political reforms.
The phrase “golden age” is associated with closer economic ties under former prime minister David Cameron – but relations between London and Beijing have deteriorated since then.
However, Sunak stressed that “we cannot simply ignore China’s importance in world affairs – for global economic stability or for issues like climate change.”
He added that the UK would work with allies including the US, Canada, Australia and Japan to “manage this increasingly fierce competition, including through diplomacy and engagement”.
China, a ‘threat’ to the UK
“This means standing up to our competitors, not with grandiose rhetoric, but with robust pragmatism,” he added.
Sunak and Chinese President Xi Jinping were due to meet for the first time at the G20 summit in Indonesia earlier this month, but the meeting was canceled following a missile explosion in Poland.
Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss reportedly intended to reclassify China as a “threat” to the UK as part of a foreign policy review.
In his speech, Sunak echoed the idea, defining China as a “systemic challenge.” He said there would be more details on that review in the new year.