Rishi Sunak’s pre-emptive strike attacking Liz Truss over alleged Foreign Office pusillanimity towards China looks to have been a daring attempt to fend off an imminent assault from his Tory leadership rival.
But it locks the contestants into a potentially uncontrollable dogfight as they seek to prove their credentials as the truer enemy of authoritarianism.
Sunak had detected a Truss attack coming when, asked by ITV during its debate to pose one question to Sunak, Truss chose the niche Westminster issue of whether he supported a meeting of the UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue council going ahead. It looked a clear attempt to set up a dividing line between Sunak’s Treasury-led orthodoxy on China, and her call for a more robust approach.
There had also been briefings in Sunday papers last week by Truss allies accusing Sunak of seeking trade deals with China.
Enjoying the support of the fiercely China-sceptic Times newspaper, Sunak’s team thought a surprise attack on the “Truss Red Carpet for the Chinese” would please his media base and undermine her credentials as a cold war warrior. It also skilfully chimed with remarks by the MI6 boss, Richard Moore, last week that China was now the UK’s top priority.
But his stab at first mover’s advantage hasn’t just alarmed the Chinese embassy in the UK. There is also a group of free-trading Tory MPs who have long feared a Dutch auction of anti-China rhetoric breaking out. Boris Johnson’s brother Jo for one has long warned that if Brexit is followed by a fully fledged Ch-exit (an economic decoupling with the world’s second largest economy), it would be the equivalent of attempting to fly the Global Britain airplane after demobilising both main engines mid-air.
In a country in search of growth, alienating Chinese state-controlled markets may not thrill British business. Many of those businesses would have preferred the earlier Sunak message in his Mansion House speech last year – where he said the debate on China lacked nuance adding “we can pursue with confidence our economic relationship with China in a safe mutually beneficial way without compromising our values”.
Regardless of whether Sunak made the right tactical choice in pre-empting Truss, it is not clear how much Sunak broke genuinely new ground in his four policy proposals – to close all 30 Confucius Institutes in the UK, to build stronger diplomatic security alliances against China, to use MI5 to help British business cooperation, and to examine the case for banning Chinese acquisitions of key British firms including strategically sensitive tech firms.
The Beijing to Britain weekly intelligence briefing was pretty scathing, saying: “These are not ideas to impress thinktankers, China analysts or business leaders. They are headline ideas, not costed, hard to measure and not new.” James Cleverly, a Truss supporter and the new education secretary, insisted on Monday that the education department was well on top of the issue of Confucius Institutes.
Sunak had in effect picked up an amendment to the higher education bill tabled in June with cross-party support by Alicia Kearns and Tom Tugendhat, the two senior Tories on the foreign affairs committee. Kearns had argued that universities were being weaponised and were part of a Chinese hybrid warfare.
Their rebellion was bought off when ministers conceded a new clause in the bill placing a duty on the Office for Students to monitor the Confucius Institutes to ensure they do not breach freedom of speech, and if necessary to terminate a partnership.
Critics of Kearns said recent academic studies had suggested Confucius Institutes do not have the malign influence the detractors claim. And if the institute’s covert purpose is not to teach Chinese but make the west more open to China, they have hardly succeeded. Even some China hawks such as the former diplomat Charlie Parton have not called for a total ban.
China would also not take a mass closure lying down. The British Council would certain to be shut in retaliation.
Rana Mitter at Oxford’s China Centre was also critical, saying the UK desperately needs more people who read and understand Chinese. The reason the Chinese funded institutes, he argued, was the lack of UK government funding for Mandarin teaching. The one thing the UK could not afford was to be ignorant about China.
Sunak’s other restriction on the Chinese activity in universities is hardly revolutionary. He proposed to force all UK universities to disclose all Chinese partnerships worth £50,000 or more. The higher education bill had set the threshold at £75,000.
Another Sunak proposal – a call for a ban on strategically sensitive firms coming under Chinese control – is also an issue that the government has had on its radar ever since the passing of the National Security and Investment Act in the wake of the Huawei debacle. The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, only last week used the act to prevent Beijing Infinite Vision Technology Company from acquiring vision sensing technology from the University of Manchester. There was no harm in highlighting the issue, but Sunak seems to be theatrically trying to shut a long-closed stable door.
What is more noticeable is neither Sunak or Truss have so far discussed in the open the two big live China issues – the defence of Taiwan and whether the UK government should declare a genocide in Xinjiang.
Truss has already got herself in hot water with the sinophile Johnson government by saying the UK should learn from the mistakes of Ukraine and proffer arms to Taiwan to help the country deter a Chinese invasion. She has not repeated that remark, but her whole stance on the threat to liberty, the central theme of her speeches, suggests she would as prime minister at the very least push America towards a more proactive stance on Taiwan.
The genocide issue has yet to explode, but could if the UN human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, defies Chinese lobbying and publishes a report declaring that a genocide did happen in Xinjiang.
The UK under successive foreign ministers has rigidly resisted stating that a genocide did take place, citing the longstanding UK view that it is for international courts, not national parliaments, to determine whether a genocide had occurred. However, Truss’s aides are briefing that she believes a genocide did take place.
Either way, Beijing will be watching like a hawk to see if the China issue continues to be seen as a source of rich ammunition for the candidates, or was instead a one-off ploy by Sunak to defuse a bomb Truss had intended to detonate later in the campaign.