Rishi Sunak signals end of 'golden era' between UK and China

ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen analyses Rishi Sunak's first major foreign policy speech and what 'robust pragmatism' will mean for UK-China relations

Rishi Sunak has said the "golden era" of relations between the UK and China is over as he called for a new approach to Xi Jinping's government.

It follows demonstrations of force from police in China, who have attempted to crackdown on civil disobedience.

Mr Sunak threw his support behind protesters and suggested a change to diplomatic relations with China, calling the nation a "systemic challenge to our values and interests".

He also confirmed the UK's defence and security strategy for the next ten years would be updated in 2023.

In his first major foreign policy speech, Mr Sunak indicated to international dignitaries and business leaders that he would set a fresh direction for the UK’s place in the world, after the premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

Mr Johnson and Ms Truss were seen as taking more combative approaches with allies such as the French president Emmanuel Macron, but in his speech Mr Sunak balanced his thinking on China and Russia with a promise of better relations with Europe amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Sunak signals ‘evolutionary leap’ in British foreign policy. Credit: PA

In the speech at the annual Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London’s Guildhall, Mr Sunak reiterated Government criticism of the arrest of a BBC journalist covering Covid protests in China.

He said: "Let’s be clear, the so-called 'golden era' is over, along with the naïve idea that trade would automatically lead to social and political reform.

"But nor should we rely on simplistic Cold War rhetoric.

"We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism.

"Instead of listening to their people’s protests, the Chinese government has chosen to crack down further, including by assaulting a BBC journalist.

"The media - and our parliamentarians - must be able to highlight these issues without sanction, including calling out abuses in Xinjiang - and the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong.”

Alongside allies, he said the UK would "manage this sharpening competition, including with diplomacy and engagement".

Mr Sunak had been set to meet with President Xi during the G20 summit earlier this month, but the meeting was scrapped after NATO members had to attend a emergency meeting after a Polish village near Ukraine's border was bombed.

Concluding his speech in London, he went on to say: "Under my leadership, we won’t choose the status quo. We will do things differently.

"We will evolve, anchored always by our enduring belief in freedom, openness and the rule of law, and confident that in this moment of challenge and competition our interests will be protected and our values will always prevail."

He also received applause as he praised women protesting in Iran, telling the audience that they were "displaying the most humbling and breath-taking courage".

Describing the need for an “evolutionary leap” in British strategy, he said it would require “being stronger in defending our values and the openness on which our prosperity depends”.

“It means delivering a stronger economy at home, as the foundation of our strength abroad. And it means standing up to our competitors, not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism.

“We will do all this not only through our diplomatic expertise, science and technology leadership, and investment in defence and security, but by dramatically increasing the quality and depth of our partnerships with like-minded allies around the world.”

His speech immediately received criticism, with Tory MP and former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith likening some of Mr Sunak’s language on China as close to “appeasement”.

Speaking to Channel 4 News before Mr Sunak’s speech, Sir Iain pointed to the treatment of BBC cameraman Edward Lawrence, who the broadcaster said was “arrested and handcuffed” while covering demonstrations in China against Covid restrictions, and then “beaten and kicked” by police.

“On the very day we see all of that, the Government comes out with its robust pragmatism, which I think to most people out there means kind of anything you want it to mean, and that sounds to me like getting pretty close to appeasement.”

Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Layla Moran said: "In the summer, Sunak talked tough on China - now he’s U-turned at the first possible opportunity. Rowing back on his previous stance is remarkably tone deaf given it comes just days after a British journalist was subject to disturbing treatment at the hands of the Chinese authorities.

“The British public will be rightly concerned that the Conservative Government looks set to continue its record of failure when it comes to holding China accountable on everything from Hong Kong to recognition of the genocide of the Uyghurs.”

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