©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Sunak’s China hawks take flight

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In a ministerial statement this afternoon, deputy PM Oliver Dowden will confront one of the defining issues of our age: how to deal with an increasingly antagonistic China, which the government is set to accuse of masterminding cyberattacks against British citizens and politicians. More here.

Taking to the despatch box at approximately 3.30 pm, Dowden is expected to introduce new sanctions on individuals who ministers believe were involved in a hack on the Electoral Commission in 2021. The commission holds the data of 40 million British citizens.

But the choreography won’t stop there. Separately, a small group of MPs and a peer — all of whom are hawkish on China — will be briefed privately about specific cyber threats to them from the Asian superpower.

Then, foreign secretary Lord Cameron will address the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers at 5 pm. The Liberal Democrats have raised concerns that Cameron’s private briefing does not extend to representatives of other parties. MPs, of course, have but limited contact with the noble secretary of state — a point of perennial controversy.

The China question also happens to feature as one of the Conservatives’ most fundamental divides. And, lo, today’s events have naturally become implicated in a broader war of words within the party over the government’s stance on the Asian superpower.

Former cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke, for one, has called on ministers to “end our naivety” on China, saying that every time there is talk of a “reset” in relations there is then “fresh evidence of malign activity”. Meanwhile, former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, de facto head of the Tory hawks, has branded the government as “very weak” on cyber threats from Beijing. More here. (Duncan Smith was one of the parliamentarians reportedly targeted by Chinese state hackers).

Unfortunately for Clarke and Duncan Smith, an address later from Lord Cameron will likely do little to ease their concerns. The foreign secretary has been accused of being too soft on Beijing — both as prime minister and a for-hire former prime minister. Cameron was memorably photographed drinking pints of beer with President Xi Jinping during a visit to Britain in 2015 — a pointed illustration of what has since become known as the “golden era” of relations between the two countries.

Speaking this morning, Rishi Sunak repeated the government’s stance that China presents an “epoch-defining challenge”. This wording, first crafted as part of the government’s 2023 Integrated Review Refresh, simply does not go far enough for many Conservative MPs.

So, expect a horde of hawkish Tories to challenge that line this afternoon as Dowden delivers his statement — among whom I expect to feature Liz Truss. The former prime minister has long called for the government to bump up its characterisation of China as a “threat”.

It was Truss who triggered the Integrated Review Refresh as PM with a view to rebranding Beijing along these lines — and pressuring the government to follow through has since become one of her favourite post-premiership crusades. That and demolishing the “deep state”, of course.

Have a great rest of your day.

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