The two remaining candidates vying to succeed Boris Johnson as British prime minister have pledged a tougher stance on China.
Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who quit the government earlier this month, and the current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are competing to take over from Boris Johnson, who announced his resignation as prime minister earlier this month following a series of scandals and ministerial resignations.
While taxation and inflation are the focus of domestic campaigning, policy towards China has dominated foreign policy.
In a recent televised debate, Truss said she would crack down on Chinese-owned companies like TikTok.
“We should we absolutely should be cracking down on those types of companies and we should be limiting the amount of technology exports we do to authoritarian regimes,” Truss said at the debate, hosted by the BBC.
The foreign secretary pledged a tougher stance against Beijing.
“After the appalling abuses in Xinjiang, after the terrible actions on Hong Kong and the most recent outrage, which is China working with Russia and essentially backing them in the appalling war in Ukraine, we have to take a tougher stance. We have to learn from the mistakes we made of Europe becoming dependent on Russian oil and gas. We cannot allow that to happen with China. And freedom is a price worth paying,” Truss said.
Her rival Rishi Sunak called China the ‘number-one threat’ to domestic and global security.
“And as prime minister, I'll take a very, very robust view on making sure that we do stand up for our values and we protect ourselves against those threats, because that's the right thing to do for our security,” Sunak said.
Fewer than 200-thousand Conservative party members will vote to choose Britain’s next prime minister in the coming weeks, out of a total registered voting population of 46.5 million. The result will be announced September 5.
The candidates are appealing to a particular electorate, says Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.
“The Conservative party members are more concerned about China policy than the general public in the U.K. as a whole. And this, I think, is the reason why the two prime ministerial contenders engage in a debate on China, but they were only focused on one single issue: who is softer on China, rather than what the U.K.’s China strategy should be.”
Matching policies as prime minister with the rhetoric of the campaign may be a challenge, Tsang said.
“Some commitments can be achieved relatively quickly, for example the closing of Confucius [higher education] institutes, articulated by Sunak. The real issue here is whether Liz Truss will as prime minister repeat what she had said, if she continues to use the description ‘genocide’ on Xinjiang, it’s going to make the relationship between the U.K. and China very, very difficult indeed.”
Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, criticized the language used in the televised debates. “I would like to urge certain British politicians not to make an issue out of China or hype the so-called China threat,” Lijian said Tuesday.
A recent joint warning from the United States’ FBI and Britain’s MI5 intelligence service warned that China poses ‘a massive shared challenge.’
“The most game changing challenge we face comes from the Chinese Communist Party. It's covertly applying pressure across the globe. This might feel abstract, but it's real and it's pressing. We need to talk about it. We need to act,” MI5 Director General Ken McCallum said in a July 6 speech, alongside with his FBI counterpart Christopher Wray.