Kemi Badenoch has said the UK should not be describing China as a “foe”, despite the arrest of two men under the Official Secrets Act amid reports a parliamentary researcher spied for China.
Badenoch, the business and trade secretary, instead chose to term China a “challenge”, sticking to the wording of the government’s integrated security review refresh which called the Asian power an “epoch-defining challenge”.
The parliamentary researcher who is the subject of the “spy” reports is understood to have had links to security minister Tom Tugendhat, foreign affairs committee chairperson Alicia Kearns and other senior Conservative MPs.
Asked on Sky News about the reports of a “Chinese Spy”, Badenoch said there is an “ongoing investigation by the security services”, adding it is concerning to MPs because “our legislature is an area that should be safe from spying”.
She says it’s “not the first time” this has happened and is a “reminder of how careful we all need to be in who we recruit”.
Asked if trade deals are being prioritised over security, she says the UK is not trying to reach a trade agreement with China, but adds we “have to recognise” that it is the second-largest economy in the world.
On the matter of how the UK should consider China in light of the allegations, Badenoch insisted: “We shouldn’t be using language that makes people scared – we need to be giving them confidence, and I’m very confident in our security services and in the work that the government is doing on economic security and investment screening”
“We certainly should not be describing China as a foe, but we can describe it as a challenge,” she adds.
It comes after foreign secretary James Cleverly visited China at the end of August this year, in the first visit to China by a UK foreign secretary in more than five years.
Cleverly insisted to reporters at the time that his visit was about “making sure we are able to speak regularly about bilateral issues – both the areas where we disagree but also areas where we need to cooperate [such as] the fight against climate change”.
Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who has consistently urged the governee to take a tougher line on China, told Sky News yesterday that Rishi Sunak’s China strategy of engagement is very much in question in light of the allegations of a Chinese spy working in parliament.
In reference to James Cleverly’s recent visit to China, he says: “To what degree did the foreign secretary know about this arrest when he was going off to Beijing? Was he informed about this spying going on in parliament, and if so, why was this not raised at the time? Why were MPs not told about it?”
He called on the government to “get our policy straight”, saying that we can engage as Rishi Sunak wants, but on our terms.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak met Chinese premier Li Qiang, who is attending the G20 summit in India in place of President Xi Jinping, on the fringes of the gathering’s final session on Sunday morning.
Speaking after the meeting, Sunak said he raised his “very strong concern” about interference with parliamentary democracy, which he said was “obviously unacceptable”.
Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.