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From ‘Golden Era’ to deteriorating relations

Over the last several years, the largely cordial relationship between the UK and China has deteriorated sharply.

In the previous two decades, regardless of the political make up of successive UK governments, the trend had been towards closer engagement and cooperation.

The high-point of UK-China relations was during the 2015-17 Conservative Government, when there was talk on both sides of a “golden era”.

However, growing controversy in the UK over China’s human rights clamp-down against the Muslim Uighur population in the Western province of Xinjiang, as well as concerns about the erosion of the “one country, two systems” status quo in Hong Kong and the threat of espionage and influence operations by China in the UK, have dramatically changed the atmosphere between the two countries.

2021 Integrated Review

The UK Government’s March 2021 Integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy (Integrated Review, IR) described China as a “systemic competitor”.

The review said the UK will “do more to adapt to China’s growing impact on many aspects of our lives as it becomes more powerful in the world”. And that the Government will invest in “China-facing capabilities” allowing the UK to better understand China and its people, and improving the UK’s ability to respond to the challenge it poses to “our security, prosperity and values – and those of our allies and partners”.

However, the review also emphasised the Government’s intention to continue pursuing a “positive trade and investment relationship” with China, while also ensuring that national security is protected. It also acknowledged that cooperation with China on transnational issues such as climate change is a necessity.

Integrated Review refresh

On 13 March 2023 the Government published a refresh of the Integrated Review (PDF). The refresh was produced in response to the significant world events that have taken place since the original strategy was published in 2021, including the war in Ukraine, and what the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, described in the refresh’s foreword as “China’s willingness to use all the levers of state power to achieve a dominant role in global affairs”.

Mr Sunak also warned of “China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait”.

The refresh describes an “epoch-defining and systemic challenge posed by China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) across almost every aspect of national life and government policy”.

The refresh says the UK must respond to two over-arching factors that have continued to evolve since the IR 2021:

  1. China’s size and significance on nearly every global issue which will continue to increase in the years ahead, and so its choices, including in areas like climate change, will have a profound impact on the UK; and
  2. The UK’s growing concerns about the China’s CCP leadership’s actions and intents including its strengthening partnership with Russia, disregard for human rights, military modernisation and actions in the South China Sea, and its espionage and interference activities in the UK.

Despite these factors the refresh also states that the UK “does not accept that China’s relationship with the UK or its impact on the international system are set on a predetermined course”, and that the UK’s preference is for “better cooperation and understanding, and predictability and stability for global public good”.

The UK will “engage constructively” with China when it aligns with the UK’s core national interests and with maintaining an open and stable international order, but wherever “the CCP’s actions and stated intent threaten the UK’s interests” the UK will “take swift and robust action to protect them”.

It will pursue this policy through a three-stranded ‘Protect-Align-Engage’ framework, stating the UK will:

  • Protect its national security, strengthening protective measures in “those areas where the actions of the CCP pose a threat to our people, prosperity and security”, while also increasing protections for academic freedom and university research.
  • Align with core allies and partners, recognising the UK has “limited agency to influence the CCP’s actions” on its own, with Mr Sunak in his foreword saying: “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”.
  • Engage with China bilaterally and in international fora, strengthen diplomatic relations, and pursue a positive trade and investment relationship while ensuring trading and investment is “safe, reciprocal and mutually beneficial”.

Alongside the refresh the Government announced extra funding to “further boost skills and knowledge for government staff on China, including on economic and military policy as well as Mandarin language skills”.

Recent ministerial visits, speeches and evidence to select committees

April 2023, Foreign Secretary speech on China

On 25 April 2023 then Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, made a speech setting out the Government’s China policy.

Mr Cleverly said he did not see “anything inevitable about conflict between China and the United States and the wider West”, and that “we must face the inescapable reality that no significant global problem – from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic instability to nuclear proliferation – can be solved without China”.

He said the Government will “advance British interests directly with China, alongside our allies, while steadfastly defending our national security and our values”. While giving examples of the UK successfully engaging and influencing China, for example through the UK’s membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and arguing “engagement can succeed”, he also acknowledged that “the truth is that a country like ours, devoted to liberty and democracy, will always be torn between our national interest in dealing with China and our abhorrence of Beijing’s abuse”.

He summarised that the UK’s policy “has to combine 2 currents: we must engage with China where necessary and be unflinchingly realistic about its authoritarianism”.

August 2023, visit by Foreign Secretary

On 30 August 2023, James Cleverly travelled to Beijing to meet with the Chinese vice president, Han Zheng.

The visit was criticised by some, including Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP, who has been sanctioned by China, who was reported to have said the visit was the latest stage of “Project Kowtow”, and that the UK position “smells terribly of appeasement”. Mr Cleverly defended the trip, telling BBC News it would not be “credible” to disengage from China, and that it would help avoid “mistrust and errors”.

November 2023, China invited to UK Government AI safety summit

From 1-2 November 2023, the UK hosted an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Safety Summit at Bletchley Park, to consider the risks of AI and discuss how they can be mitigated through internationally coordinated action. More than 25 countries were present, including China. China joined the UK, US, most EU countries, Japan, India and others in signing a joint declaration, agreeing to collective action to manage the potential risks from the new technology.

January 2024, Lord Cameron gives evidence to Foreign Affairs Committee

On 9 January 2024, the new Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, while giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, also defended his predecessors trip to Beijing the previous year saying “things probably would be worse without it”.

Asked if it was that the FCDO had resisted taking a tougher stance on China, the Foreign Secretary responded:

I would say that the Department has a lot of people who understand China very deeply, and who want us to have a relationship that can bear a load, so that we can deal with things like climate change, and make sure that we have diplomatic relations, but there is no naivety. I do not sense in the Department any naivety on this. It knows that China has changed in the last few years, and become more assertive and more aggressive, and that is why the protect part of the policy is so important.

March 2024, Prime Minister’s evidence to the Liaison Committee

Giving evidence to the House of Commons Liaison Committee, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was asked about the use of Chinese-manufactured goods in the UK’s critical national infrastructure such as cellular modules (electronic wireless components embedded in devices, such as CCTV cameras and utility meters that connect to the internet). He responded that “The first thing to say is that China represents the greatest state-based threat to our economic security, and recently we have seen behaviour that we just won’t stand for” and that “Their actions in relation to our and our allies’ democracies are deeply concerning, which is why recently we have taken retaliatory action, and we will continue to address their behaviour with tough action”.

Mr Sunak talked specifically about actions the UK had taken to restrict Chinese investment in the country, including the Government’s decision to force the Chinese-owned Nexperia firm to sell the majority of its stake in the Wafer Fab microchip factory in Newport on national security grounds; and the Government’s buying out of the state-owned China General Nuclear’s stake in the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station.

Challenged by Liam Byrne MP, Chair of the Business and Trade Committee, that the UK was not acting as decisively against China as its allies such as the EU and the US, the Prime Minister responded:

I would say that our approach to China is undoubtedly more robust than most of our allies, in fact. The language we use is very similar, if you look across all our foreign policy strategies. You talked about Huawei. There are European countries—including Germany, when I last checked—that have not removed Huawei kit from their telecoms infrastructure. We placed export controls on sensitive technologies to China last year. Again, they have not been replicated by the EU and in some cases are broader than those in the US. The foreign investment regime that we passed is the most recent version of that law out of any of our allies, and as a result is more robust—probably than you would find in any European country, or in the US.

[…] On trade, we are already less dependent on China for trade than Australia, Korea, Japan, the US, Germany and many other countries.

Lastly, I don’t think any other country has set up a National Protective Security Agency—which we have funded, dealt with by MI5—which means that we can provide specific support to companies to manage the threats from all states when it comes to IP theft and espionage. I am entirely confident that our approach to dealing with the risk that China poses is very much in line with our allies, and in most cases goes further in protecting ourselves.

Human rights

China is one of the UK’s 32 ‘human rights priority countries’ as identified by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). These are countries “which either have particular human rights or democracy challenges, or are on a negative or positive trajectory, and where the FCDO considers that it can make a real difference”.

The FCDO’s annual human rights and democracy report published in July 2023, looking back at 2022, said there continued to be “widespread restrictions and violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” in China in 2022. This included “systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang”. In its 2023 refresh of the 2021 Integrated Review, the Government also argued that China is “challenging the centrality of human rights and freedoms in the UN system”.

The UK Government says the former Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, raised violations in Xinjiang directly with the Chinese Government when he visited Beijing in 2023. The Government has also raised “grave concerns” about violations in Xinjiang at the UN, and imposed asset freezes and travel bans on those involved under the UK Global Human Rights sanctions regime.

The Lords Library briefing, China: Allegations of human rights abuses, November 2022 and Commons Library debate briefings, The Uygur tribunal, January 2022 and Persecution of Buddhists in Tibet, December 2023, provide background on reports of human rights abuses in China.

Hong Kong

Since June 2020 when the People’s Republic of China’s parliament passed a National Security Law for Hong Kong, most observers have stated there has been a serious deterioration in human rights in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Government claim that human rights are better protected since the legislation was passed.

The National Security Law criminalises any act of:

  • secession – breaking away from the country;
  • subversion – undermining the power or authority of the central government;
  • terrorism – using violence or intimidation against people; and
  • collusion with foreign or external forces.

The law established a new Beijing-led security office in Hong Kong, with its own law enforcement personnel – neither of which come under the local authority’s jurisdiction. Hong Kong’s political leader, called the Chief Executive, now has the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases. Beijing also oversees how the law should be interpreted, rather than any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.

The National Security Law is also extraterritorial, that is it states it applies to anyone regardless of where they live in the world or if they are a citizen and/or resident of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong authorities target those abroad including British citizens

The Hong Kong authorities have used the extra-territorial nature of the law to target individuals abroad. In March 2022, Benedict Rogers a British national living in the UK who runs the Hong Kong Watch, a charity which campaigns for human rights in the territory, said the Hong Kong Police had written to him stating he faced charges of “collusion with foreign forces”, should he return there.

In July 2023, police in Hong Kong issued arrest warrants for eight exiled Hong-Kongers, including former members of the Legislative Council, for reportedly committing offences under the National Security Law. A HK$1 million bounty was also offered for those offering information that leads to the arrest of those individuals. Three of the individuals were said to reside in the UK, and in response the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) stated that a senior official conducted a formal diplomatic démarche (official protest) of the Chinese Ambassador at the instruction of the Foreign Secretary.

In December 2023 another five arrest warrants were issued against activists including some based in the UK and the US, again with bounties offered.

The Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, issued a statement in response stating:

I have instructed officials in Hong Kong, Beijing and London to raise this issue as a matter of urgency with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.

We will not tolerate any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK. This is a threat to our democracy and fundamental human rights.

The Commons Library debate pack: Future of human rights in Hong Kong, 22 January 2024, has further details.

Three men charged under UK National Security Act

On 13 May 2024, the Metropolitan Police announced it had charged three men under the National Security Act with “assisting the Hong Kong intelligence service and foreign interference”.

Parliamentary scrutiny of government policy

There have been several reports by committees of both Houses of Parliament that have explored aspects of the UK Government’s policy towards China in recent years:

The main findings of these reports on Government policy towards China are summarised in the House of Lord’s Library In Focus briefing: UK: Long-term strategic challenges posed by China, 3 October 2023.

Since that briefing was published, the Government have responded to the August 2023 Foreign Affairs Committee ‘Tilting horizons’ report.

Calls for a UK Government China strategy and other commentary on UK Government policy

Calls for a UK Government China strategy

Both the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee and House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee have called, in the reports mentioned above, for the UK to articulate a clear strategy towards China and to publish it.

The Foreign Affairs Committee ‘Tilting Horizons’ report states that the FCDO confirmed in its evidence to the Committee it had, “in consultation with other departments, developed a China strategy that the then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (…) said was not publicly available”.

The Committee argued that the publication of this strategy, at least in part would benefit the Government and organisations across the UK:

While it is understandable that the Government does not publish a complete policy towards the PRC [People’s Republic of China] because awareness by the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] of some of its military or trade competitor strategies would undermine the effectiveness of the strategy, the failure to outline clear foreign policy, let alone a cross-Government stance towards China, makes it difficult for that strategy to be complied with by both state and non-state actors, including civil servants, academics and businesses.

The Government in its response to the report stated that it had clearly set out its policy towards China and it did not intend to produce an additional China strategy:

HMG clearly set out its approach to China in the Integrated Review Refresh: protecting our national security, aligning with our allies and partners and engaging with China where it is in UK interests to do so. The former Foreign Secretary’s Mansion House Speech in April built on this, making clear that we will always put British national interests and British national security first in our engagement with China. As such, the Government does not intend to publish an additional China Strategy and we have not committed to do so. We will continue to maintain as much transparency as possible and keep Parliament informed of our approach towards China, while recognising it is not in UK interests to make every element of the strategy public.

Commentary and further reading

For more on UK policy towards China and the development of a strategy see:

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