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UK Calls China an ‘Epoch-Defining Challenge’ to Global Security

UK Calls China an ‘Epoch-Defining Challenge’ to Global Security
Rishi Sunak arrives at San Diego International Airport on March 12. Photographer: Leon Neal/Getty Images

China poses significant risks to global prosperity and security, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said, describing the country’s economic and military rise as an “an epoch-defining challenge” to international order.

Launching a wide-ranging review of British security, defense, development and foreign policy, Sunak said the UK will continue working with Beijing on issues like climate change, but will join with allies to “push back” against China when necessary.

The so-called integrated review said China’s policies have “implications for almost every area of government policy and the everyday lives of British people.”

The UK is particularly concerned about what it describes as China’s “disregard” for universal human rights and its international commitments, from Tibet and Xinjiang to Hong Kong, as well as its “rapid and opaque” military modernization and refusal to renounce the use of force over Taiwan.

Still, the review stopped short of explicitly labeling China a “threat,” and set out a nuanced approach to relations with Beijing. The UK doesn’t believe its relationship with China is set on a “predetermined course,” the review said, and the country will continue to seek better cooperation. That would hinge on whether China decides to continue pursuing greater authoritarianism and assertiveness overseas, the UK review said.

“Where there are attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to coerce or create dependencies, we will work closely with others to push back against them,” Sunak said in the review’s opening remarks.

By describing China as a challenge rather than a threat, Sunak overlooked lobbying from some senior members of his own governing Conservative Party, who called on him to denounce China as a strategic threat to British security.

The review does say that the UK will further strengthen national security protections in areas where the actions of the CCP “pose a threat to our people, prosperity and security.” The UK will double funding for 2024-25 to build Mandarin language skills and its ability to understand China.

Authoritarian, Assertive

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was due to unveil the Integrated Review in Parliament Monday, while Sunak is visiting the US for talks with President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in San Diego. The allies will unveil the next phase of the AUKUS nuclear submarine program, 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.

Since taking office in October, Sunak has acknowledged the need for trade and diplomatic relations with China, noting the strategic importance of the Taiwan straits for global shipping trade.

“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 recognized it as the biggest state-based threat to our economic security.”

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.”

Read More: Australia’s Nuclear Subs Will Use UK Design to Counter China

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.” She characterized China’s aims as more than an economic challenge: “Because no country can have economic security without national security.”

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, a longtime critic of Beijing, 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.”

Read More: A Lost Decade Worse Than Japan’s Threatens to Change UK Forever

The review called Russia’s threat to European security the “most pressing” national security priority in the short-to—medium term. The UK will consider using its counter-terrorism powers to tackle threats from organizations like the Wagner Group, a private paramilitary group with links to President Vladimir Putin’s government that is fighting alongside the Russian army in Ukraine, the review said.

The focus on Russia and its ongoing war in Ukraine saw the UK pledge £5 billion ($6 billion) for UK defense over this year — half the level reportedly requested by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

It also outlined an ambition to increase defense 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, and the decision not to push for 3% is likely to draw criticism from the military and Conservative Party hawks.

Speaking on the plane, Sunak said the review would show the UK is “ready to stand our ground” and “ensure we are never vulnerable to the actions of a hostile power.”

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