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Sunak takes nuanced approach to China threat in UK defence plan

Sunak takes nuanced approach to China threat in UK defence plan
Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, during a joint news conference with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission on Monday, 27 February 2023.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will face down critics in his governing Conservative Party who have called on him to denounce China as a strategic threat to the UK’s security, instead offering a more nuanced approach to relations with Beijing as he sets out the nation’s foreign policy priorities. 

Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss had intended to designate China a strategic threat in an update to the UK’s so-called Integrated Review, or IR, of defence and security. After economic turmoil led to an abrupt end to her tenure, Sunak – more emollient in approach – took a fresh look at the strategy and came to a different conclusion about the threat.

“It’s a regime that is increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad and has a desire to reshape the world order,” Sunak told reporters on his way to the US Sunday. “We’ve recognised it as the biggest state-based threat to our economic security.”

Still, China’s economic power and 1.5 billion people mean it can’t be dismissed and “that’s why in the IR you will see a very thoughtful and detailed approach to China”, the premier said.

Sunak is visiting San Diego for talks with allies US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to unveil the next phase of the AUKUS nuclear submarine programme, a security partnership meant to counter China. Albanese is expected to opt for a British-designed fleet, with US boats being purchased as a stop-gap measure.

While campaigning for the Conservative Party leadership last year against the hawkish Truss, Sunak described China as the biggest long-term threat facing the UK. Since taking office, his approach is more nuanced, acknowledging the need to trade with the nation and the need for diplomatic relations not least because of the strategic importance of the Taiwan straits in allowing the safe passage of container ships to the rest of the world. 

Sunak added that the Chinese Communist Party’s military, financial and diplomatic activity represented an “epoch-defining challenge”. Asked by reporters if he would like to visit Beijing as other world leaders are planning, Sunak replied, “It’s not about going there or not going there. I think engagement is the point.”

China-skeptic Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who chairs Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview that she welcomes “the recognition of the threat of China.” 

“But this threat cannot be seen as primarily economic, that is to fail to understand China is foremost seeking to undermine our national security and sovereignty,” she said. “Because no country can have economic security without national security.”

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith called the updated strategy “a wasted opportunity to call out China as they are, a threat to our way of life and physically to us”.

“By being weak in facing China, China doesn’t respect us. If we don’t show strength they won’t respect us. Project Kowtow is alive and well,” Duncan Smith, a longtime critic of Beijing, said in an interview.

But even while the premier said an updated foreign and security policy would show the UK is “ready to stand our ground” and “ensure we are never vulnerable to the actions of a hostile power,” he also rejected pleas to increase defence spending to 3% of the size of the economy.

Sunak will pledge £5-billion for UK defence over this year and next, although large parts of the settlement will be swallowed up by replenishing ammunition stockpiles given to Ukraine and work on the Australian submarines project. The funding is only around half of what Defence Secretary Ben Wallace had reportedly requested as the military budgets are squeezed by the impact of the conflict in Ukraine, inflation and the weakness of sterling. 

Speaking to reporters travelling with him to the US, Sunak set out an ambition to increase defence spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product in the longer term, with further spending to be set out in 2025. The UK was already on a trajectory to reach 2.5% by 2030 under plans set out under former premier Boris Johnson and is likely to draw criticism from the military and hawks in his ruling Conservative Party. He was speaking ahead of the UK’s budget statement on Wednesday. 

The Integrated Review Refresh updates Britain’s approach to foreign policy, which was last published in 2021. According to Sunak’s office, when it is published on Monday, it will also set out plans to: 

  • Create a new National Protective Security Authority within the domestic spy agency MI5 to provide businesses with instant access to security advice.
  • Establish an Economic Deterrence Initiative to strengthen sanctions enforcement.
  • Double funding for Mandarin training for diplomats.
  • Publish a refresh of the Critical Minerals Strategy to access technology components.
  • Provide the BBC World Service with an extra £20-million to counter disinformation from hostile states. BM/DM
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