Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

On China, Rishi Sunak’s technocratic instinct is showing

In November 2022, Rishi Sunak was granted his first taste of the international stage as prime minister when the G20 met in Indonesia, in what was to prove a geopolitical baptism of fire. 

At the time, few commentators knew how Sunak would approach foreign policy — unlike both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, former foreign secretaries, the erstwhile Treasury technocrat had no discernible experience of international affairs.

But beyond the obvious question around a lack of experience, there was a more profound quandary: what were Sunak’s “values” when it came to geopolitics? Certainly, he had taken some stridently hardline “hawkish” positions on China in the summer 2022 leadership contest — forced into such footing by Liz Truss’ own (successful) bid to court the Conservative base. But, having only ever served in cabinet at the Treasury, Sunak seemed some way away from a dedicated doctrine. 

It was to the surprise of many, therefore, that in November 2022, Sunak requested a meeting with with China’s president Xi Jinping. The unexpected bilat, requested by Downing Street, would have been the first of its kind in five years. It was an immediate hint that Sunak’s summer fling with Sinoscepticism had been just that: a ploy to woo the Conservative selectorate. 

Sunak and Xi’s tête-à-tête was ultimately cancelled after a missile struck the territory of Poland on 15 November, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine rumbled on in the background. But Sunak’s attempt to extend a diplomatic olive branch to the Asian superpower was a clear statement of technocratic intent. Far less concerned with dancing to the tune of the Conservative party’s grassroots, Sunak was inaugurating a softer, more pragmatic approach to China — one reminiscent of the David Cameron years. (Although the PM is yet to repeat the pint-pulling antics of Cameron and Xi in 2014). 

But where Sunak has led on China, many in his party have refused to follow. And Sunak’s tilt at a softer form of diplomacy has, at every stage, invited the ire of some of the Conservative party’s backbench “hawks”.

And this recent phase of intra-Conservative party discord on China, following news that a parliamentary researcher for MPs is under arrest on suspicion of spying for Beijing, is no different. Two men, one in his 20s and another in his 30s, were arrested under the Official Secrets Act in March, police confirmed on Monday after the story was first reported in the Sunday Times.

The alleged parliamentary “spy”, who has protested his innocence in a statement issued by his lawyer, has been linked to a number of senior Conservative MPs, including several who are privy to sensitive information. They include Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, and Alicia Kearns, current chair of the foreign affairs committee. 

The episode has reopened questions about Rishi Sunak’s approach to China — especially in light of foreign secretary James Cleverly’s recent trip. It has now emerged that Cleverly was briefed about the arrest of the Commons researcher before his recent visit to China, which was, after Sunak’s scuppered November attempt, the first visit from a UK elected official in five years.

On the surface, the spying episode appears to strengthen the case of the Conservative party’s Sinosceptic wing, who have consistently pressed their case that the UK must designate China as a “threat” to Britain.

Indeed, speaking in the House of Commons Monday, Sunak’s old Sinosceptic adversary Liz Truss, who visited Taiwan in May, declared: “China is the largest threat to the world and the United Kingdom for freedom and democracy”.

Another former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told the Daily Mail: “They are a threat and until we wake up to that threat, engaging with them only makes us look weak.”

Elsewhere, Sunak is said to face a split in his Cabinet, with the Times reporting that both home office ministers Suella Braverman and Tugendhat support a tougher approach. It came after business and trade secretary Kemi Badenoch told Sky News on Monday morning that it is “important to be diplomatic” on China. She added that declaring China a threat would “escalate things” further.

As Badenoch’s statement shows, the government is outwardly doubling down on its designation of China as an “epoch-defining challenge”, lingo debuted in the government’s integrated security review refresh. The refresh had been triggered by Truss during her short time in Downing Street, with the intention of radicalising the UK’s positioning on China, but Sunak stopped pointedly short his short-lived predecessor’s proposal.

In this way, it is ultimately deeply unlikely that this latest round of discussion on China will provoke Sunak to ratchet up his Sinoscepticism. He has prided his foreign policy strategy since becoming Prime Minister as being the opposite of combative. Moreover, after the turmoil of foreign policy under Truss and Johnson — characterised by their critics as brash and often inconsistent — the PM views his stubborn steadiness as a serious virtue. 

Sunak will also want to be seen as in step with the strategy of countries such as Australia and the United States on China. Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese is heading to Beijing this autumn, the first Australian leader to do so since 2016, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was there in June. 

After the whiplash induced by Trussonomics, which saw Britain emerge as something of a laughing stock on the world stage, Sunak hugs his counterparts’ strategies tightly: he has concluded that there is no advantage in leaning stubbornly, as his predecessor did, into an outlier position. Brexit Britain hardly has the diplomatic clout to emerge as a leading light on the world stage in any case. 

Moreover, Downing Street has for some time now been sending strong hints that it will invite China to both Sunak’s summit on AI in November and the planned energy summit for next year. 

The prime minister has already suffered the blow that Joe Biden will not be attending his AI summit, despite him personally receiving the US president’s blessing on a recent trip to the US. The summit was intended as a way for Sunak and the UK moreover to flaunt some retained post-Brexit diplomatic weight, and for the PM to show some thought leadership on technology, known to be one of his pet subjects. “AI knows no borders”, the No 10 spokesperson said yesterday after he was asked whether the UK would rescind a possible Chinese invite to the U.K.’s AI Safety Summit.

For this reason and others, therefore, we can expect Sunak to stay the course on his approach to China — staring down his party’s Sinosceptic elements. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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