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28 November 2022

What does Rishi Sunak’s “robust pragmatism” mean for China?

There are signs that the Prime Minister is reverting to the softer position he adopted towards Beijing when he was chancellor.

By Freddie Hayward

What will foreign policy look like under Rishi Sunak? From Boris Johnson onwards, the UK’s policy on Ukraine has been broadly consistent. Both rhetorical support and the supply of defence equipment have been maintained. On Europe, Sunak is pursuing a more conciliatory approach than his predecessors, particularly towards France’s Emmanuel Macron. The biggest uncertainty rests over his attitude towards China.

In his first major speech on foreign policy tonight (28 November) at the annual Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London, Sunak will describe his approach to Britain’s adversaries as “robust pragmatism”. That suggests Sunak will be less combative on China than Liz Truss. As chancellor, Sunak championed economic ties with the rising superpower. But during the summer’s Conservative leadership contest, he sought to outflank Truss by declaring China the “biggest-long term threat” to the UK’s security. “For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions,” he said. “I will change this on day one as PM.”

However, his tone has slackened. It’s unlikely that he will press ahead with Truss’s plans to officially designate China as a “threat” to national security in a review of the UK’s foreign, security and defence policy. A full-blown China strategy remains elusive. In the meantime, China-watchers around Westminster are scrutinising how this relatively new government acts in practice. 

The Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, for instance, raised eyebrows with his supposedly soft response when staff at the Chinese consulate in Manchester, including the consul-general, seemed to drag a protester into the compound and beat him. The police are investigating the matter, but some have suggested that Cleverly should have already expelled the consulate staff. Alicia Kearns, the new Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has written to Cleverly asking why the government wasn’t more forceful in response to the Manchester incident. The government says it will decide how to respond once the police investigation is done. The question is whether the Foreign Secretary simply wanted to avoid a diplomatic row so soon after his reappointment by Sunak, or whether this is the first sign of what “robust pragmatism” looks like. 

As Sunak’s foreign policy emerges, keep in mind the government is vulnerable to the views of Conservative backbenchers in a growing number of policy areas. Despite his rhetoric over the summer, tonight’s speech suggests that Sunak wants to revert to the softer approach he advocated as chancellor. But there is still a large contingent of China-sceptics in the Tory party. Expect any backsliding to be swiftly challenged.

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[See also: Chinese-owned care home in Rishi Sunak’s constituency is one of 64 in Britain]

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