PM Sunak takes nuanced approach to China threat in UK defence plan


LONDON – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will face down critics in his ruling Conservative Party who have called on him to denounce China as a strategic threat to the UK’s security, instead offering a more nuanced approach to relations with Beijing as he sets out the nation’s foreign policy priorities. 

Mr Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss had intended to designate China a strategic threat in an update to the UK’s so-called Integrated Review, or IR, of defence and security. After economic turmoil led to an abrupt end to her tenure, Mr Sunak – more emollient in approach – took a fresh look at the strategy and came to a different conclusion about the threat.

“It’s a regime that is increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad and has a desire to reshape the world order,” Mr Sunak told reporters on his way to the US Sunday. “We’ve recognised it as the biggest state-based threat to our economic security.”

Still, China’s economic power and 1.5 billion people mean it can’t be dismissed and “that’s why in the IR you will see a very thoughtful and detailed approach to China,” Mr Sunak said.

Mr Sunak is visiting San Diego for talks with allies US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to unveil the next phase of the Aukus nuclear submarine program, a security partnership meant to counter China. Mr Albanese is expected to opt for a British-designed fleet, with US boats being purchased as a stop-gap measure.

While campaigning for the Conservative Party leadership last year against the hawkish Ms Truss, Mr Sunak described China as the biggest long-term threat facing the UK.

Since taking office, his approach is more nuanced, acknowledging the need to trade with the nation and the need for diplomatic relations not least because of the strategic importance of the Taiwan Straits in allowing the safe passage of container ships to the rest of the world. 

Mr Sunak added that the Communist Party of China’s military, financial and diplomatic activity represented an “epoch-defining challenge”.

Asked by reporters if he would like to visit Beijing as other world leaders are planning, Mr Sunak replied, “It’s not about going there or not going there. I think engagement is the point.”

China-skeptic Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who chairs Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview that she welcomes “the recognition of the threat of China”.

“But this threat cannot be seen as primarily economic, that is to fail to understand China is foremost seeking to undermine our national security and sovereignty,” she said. “Because no country can have economic security without national security.”

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith called the updated strategy “a wasted opportunity to call out China as they are, a threat to our way of life and physically to us”.

“By being weak in facing China, China doesn’t respect us. If we don’t show strength they won’t respect us. Project Kowtow is alive and well,” Mr Smith, a longtime critic of Beijing, said in an interview.


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