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Rishi Sunak reinvents himself as a China hawk

The former chancellor prioritised trade when he was in office, but now he needs to counter Liz Truss’s buccaneering persona.

By Freddie Hayward

Boris Johnson’s two potential successors have turned their attention to trying to overcome the impression that, under him, Britain was soft on China. Rishi Sunak said yesterday that China was the number one threat to Britain. In last night’s BBC debate, Liz Truss called for a crackdown on TikTok, which is Chinese owned. Both sides consulted China analysts for policy advice over the weekend, I’m told.

The shift within the Conservative Party from prioritising trade to viewing China as a threat has been led by backbench MPs and activists, not ministers. As chancellor, Sunak was widely seen as sticking to a Cameron-era mentality that prioritised trade. The Treasury is said to have wanted to restart trade talks with China in February; they had been suspended following the Communist Party’s crackdown on free expression Hong Kong.

Naturally, Sunak’s shift has something to do with his position as the underdog in this race. His previous stance on China was a weakness and, as I wrote yesterday, he wisely headed off that criticism before last night’s debate (in which neither candidate covered themselves in glory – you can read Rachel’s analysis here). Truss’s hard line on China fits into her carefully crafted buccaneering persona and emphasis on “global Britain”. It helps to explain why she polls well with Brexit voters – the majority of Conservative members – even though she voted to Remain. A long debate about China could have helped Truss to reinforce her image, so Sunak had to squash it quickly.

Nonetheless, many China-watchers remain sceptical about Sunak’s history in government. Benedict Rogers, a co-founder of Hong Kong Watch, said: “I welcome the fact that Rishi Sunak appears to be waking up to the challenge of China… because his track record doesn’t match the things he’s saying now.”

Rogers thinks the Foreign Secretary’s position has been “consistent and strong” even if it remains “largely rhetoric”. Likewise, one China hawk told me: “Truss certainly forced the Foreign Office into a stronger position on China.”

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There is a fear, though, that much like in her promises to cut taxes Truss is playing to the crowd, presenting poorly thought-through policies to get votes. One Conservative MP who supports Sunak told me that, similarly to her “Damascene conversion” from Remainer to Brexiteer, “Truss will see China as a tool that she can use to make herself appear tough on the world stage. It’s a bit like Ukraine. She hasn’t fundamentally delivered anything on Ukraine. Their approaches are fundamentally different and Truss’s is more dangerous because it’s more reactionary.”

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Truss will take a harder line on China than Sunak but both now view the Chinese government as a serious threat to the UK’s national security and many China-watchers I spoke to were simply grateful the issue was being debated. Whoever becomes prime minister, the shift away from Johnson’s soft approach is worth noting.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Sunak or Truss: Who won the Tory leadership debate?]