The UK and China: A Call for Cross-Party Consensus

Unavoidable threat: Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with military representatives in Tianjin municipality in northern China in February. Image: Li Gang / Alamy

Handling the challenges posed by China will require a cross-party agreement in the UK. Here are some suggestions for how this could be done comprehensively.

Foreign policy doesn’t win elections, the old adage goes. Highfalutin talk of geopolitics and yet-to-materialise problems can feel very remote on the campaign trail. So it is hardly surprising, though very worrying, that we barely heard ‘China’ mentioned during the UK general election campaign.

All the main parties made some reference to China in their manifestos, in varying shades of scepticism. But we didn’t see any serious attempt to explain to the public the increasing link between foreign policy and domestic policy. This despite the fact that the UK’s posture towards China is likely to determine the country’s prosperity and the health of its institutions to a very great extent over the next 15 years. We have reached a point where China policy isn’t only – or even mainly – a foreign policy question. Getting to grips with Beijing means addressing what the Intelligence and Security Select Committee report last year called China’s ‘penetration of every area of the UK economy’.

Confronting the challenge of China is the biggest policy issue in a generation – it is not an option, but an unavoidable responsibility for the new prime minister

This is such a big and important issue for the UK’s future that unnecessary partisanship should be resisted wherever possible. Now the election is over, there needs to be a show of cross-party force to ensure that the newly elected government doesn’t flinch from building a fit-for-purpose China strategy. Here are some ideas, together with some key areas that no China policy can afford to ignore.

Vaccinate the UK Against Authoritarianism

Authoritarianism is spreading like a virus, and, to extend that analogy, the UK needs to do what it can to ensure it remains immune. To protect UK economic interests, therefore, we would propose a 10–15 year Authoritarianism Immunity Strategy, with the goal of sustaining UK prosperity in an unstable world. Such a strategy would need to develop a government-wide understanding of dependency tolerance levels, effectively bolstering the central nervous system of UK public and private institutions against exposure to authoritarian influence. It would also need urgently to implement a plan to audit and reduce exposure to authoritarian influence in areas of critical infrastructure and across key value chains. Meanwhile, the same approach must be applied to investment screening, as well as essential UK institutions such as universities, where a strategy to prevent academic coercion is still lacking.

Create Red Lines around Core Values

No economy can afford to trade only with countries with exemplary human rights records. Yet ambiguity over the tension between trade and values calls into question the credibility of the UK’s commitment to fundamental rights, and makes it a target for authoritarian ridicule and whataboutery. This ambiguity should be resolved by establishing red lines which underline that some values are non-negotiable. Some suggestions:

  • No new trade deals with genocidal states. The cornerstone of the entire rights project is the need to avoid genocide – often termed the ‘crime above all crimes’. Seeking to strike trade deals with such states would rob the UK of moral authority regarding fundamental rights.
  • No import of human rights abuse into the UK. The UK must be a safe zone from extraterritorial authoritarianism, and its shelves must be free of slave-made goods. Maintaining these commitments will require diplomatic steel, sustained engagement with UK business, and domestic policy reform – especially surrounding UK procurement and policing powers.
  • No denial of core rights to UK nationals detained abroad. The UK must insist on the protection of its nationals, working with international partners to resist the Chinese government’s ethno-nationalist citizenship policies which seek to deny naturalised UK citizens of their right to consular protection.

Taiwan: Launch a ‘10 Trillion Initiative’

Bloomberg estimates that an escalation in Taiwan Strait tensions would have a catastrophic impact on the global economy to the tune of $10 trillion, to say nothing of the impact upon the people of Taiwan. This isn’t someone else’s problem. This would hit the pockets of the UK taxpayer five times harder than the Ukraine conflict. De-risking means that the UK must plan for the worst, implementing a 10 Trillion Initiative which would aim to give due priority to addressing real and developing risks in the region, together with international partners. This must include: assessing and publishing the UK’s exposure to a shock in the Taiwan Strait; raising awareness of Taiwan’s essential and irreplaceable position at the heart of the global chip supply chain; a military and defence cooperation plan; and working with international partners to agree what coordinated deterrence package should be triggered in the event of a maritime and air blockade or other escalations in cross-Strait tensions.

Pass a Democracy Defence Act

The UK faces unprecedented threats to its democracy and democratic institutions at home. Many of these threats are difficult to perceive, and, for the most part, there is a lack of legislation and resources to address them. The UK should pass a Democracy Defence Act which seeks to build resilience against ever-increasing interference and influence, building on the success of the National Security and Investment Act 2023. At a minimum, the Act should address:

  • Threat criteria – establish objective, actor-agnostic criteria to determine whether or not a state poses a threat to UK interests.
  • Data transfer provisions – change the law to prevent sensitive data being transferred to jurisdictions where fundamental data rights cannot be enforced, like China.
  • Connected everything – make it illegal to import products with constituent parts, like cellular modules, that have been developed by companies who have taken inadequate steps to preclude remote manipulation.

In addition, the UK needs non-legislative solutions to the problem of interference. This includes, at a minimum, placing China in the Enhanced Tier of the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, without which the entire Scheme would be pointless. A review is also needed of the resources provided to UK intelligence agencies, who must have the ability to detect and confront the pervasive influence of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, and a comprehensive approach to bolstering China capabilities more generally.

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Finally, though not exhaustively, we need to look at international development.

Recognising that development has been wielded as a tool to expand authoritarian influence, the UK must take into account the exposure of other economies to that influence and create a Better Alternative Strategy to aid with strings attached, together with international partners.

Some of this work is already underway, but deeper reform is desperately needed. The UK must continue to enhance regional and global infrastructure cooperation to provide credible alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) model of development, including by supporting the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, the EU’s Global Gateway and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. But there is also a need to map the countries most vulnerable to deepening strategic dependencies on Beijing, and to streamline investment incentives tailored to those countries.

An even more ambitious approach should consider how to support and strengthen regional alliances across BRI target countries to provide alternatives to similar Chinese-led alliances.

Confronting the biggest policy issue in a generation is not an option, but an unavoidable responsibility for the new prime minister. Let's ensure that short-termism and partisanship doesn’t prevent him from meeting the challenge.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Jaya Pathak

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