Rishi Sunak is facing pressure to label China as a threat to national security, after a parliamentary researcher was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing.
The arrest, under the Official Secrets Act, led to the prime minister confronting Chinese premier Li Qiang at the G20 summit in India on Sunday over “unacceptable” interference in democracy.
The researcher, who had links with senior Tories including security minister Tom Tugendhat and Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns, was arrested back in March – but it went undisclosed until Saturday.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Mr Tugendhat are pushing for China to be relabelled as a threat to Britain’s safety and interests under new national security laws, the Times reported.
Anyone working “at the direction” of China or a state-linked firm would have to register and disclose their activities or risk jail under the plans.
Representatives for Ms Braverman and Mr Tugendhat have not responded to requests for comment.
Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch suggested that designating China a threat would “escalate things” with Beijing.
“We can describe it [China] as a challenge… I don’t think we should be careless in terms of how we speak about other countries when these sorts of things happen," she told Sky News on Monday.
Ms Badenoch insisted Britain is “of course” safe under the Conservative government following the arrest, as well as the recent escape of a terror suspect from prison.
She said she is “extremely confident” in her staff, during an interview with Times Radio.
However, former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who has been sanctioned by Beijing, was among Tories pressing the prime minister to strengthen his language towards China.
He hit out at the “weak” position of not labelling China a threat.
“The result is that China is penetrating all our institutions from universities to Parliament,” he said. "Time to speak through strength not weakness."
Mr Sunak cited his confrontation with Mr Li in New Delhi as an example of the benefits of his policy of engagement rather than “shouting from the sidelines”.
The prime minister told broadcasters he raised his “very strong concerns about any interference in our parliamentary democracy, which is obviously unacceptable”.
“There’s no point carping from the sidelines, I’d rather be in there directly expressing my concerns, and that’s what I did today,” he added.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said an “equivalent” to the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy must be developed for the challenges posed by other states.
Ms Cooper described Britain's relationship with China as “clearly complex”, but said the government is failing to treat national security “seriously enough”.
One of the suspects, a man in his 30s, was detained in Oxfordshire on March 13, while the other, in his 20s, was arrested in Edinburgh, Scotland Yard said. Searches were also carried out in an east London property.
Both were held on suspicion of offences under Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1911, which punishes offences that are said to be “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state”.
They were bailed until early October.
Mr Tugendhat is said not to have had any contact with the researcher since before he became security minister in September last year.
Ms Kearns declined to comment, adding: “While I recognise the public interest, we all have a duty to ensure any work of the authorities is not jeopardised.”
China hit out at the arrests and claimed the situation was a “political farce”.
A spokesman for China’s embassy in London said: “The claim that China is suspected of ‘stealing British intelligence’ is completely fabricated and nothing but malicious slander.
“We firmly oppose it and urge relevant parties in the UK to stop their anti-China political manipulation and stop putting on such self-staged political farce.”
A report from Parliament’s spy agency watchdog, the Intelligence and Security Committee, warned in July that Beijing is targeting the UK “prolifically and aggressively”.
Last year, MI5 issued a rare security alert, warning MPs that a suspected Chinese spy called Christine Lee had engaged in “political interference activities” on behalf of China’s ruling communist regime.
Labour MP Barry Gardiner, the former chairman of the now disbanded parliamentary group Chinese in Britain APPG, received more than £500,000 in donations from her before the warning.
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