Britain’s ‘golden era’ of close engagement with China is over, says Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak at the Lord Mayor's Banquet at Guildhall - Carl Court/Getty Images Europe
Rishi Sunak at the Lord Mayor's Banquet at Guildhall - Carl Court/Getty Images Europe

The “golden era” in relations between the UK and China “is over”, Rishi Sunak has declared in his first major policy speech since becoming Prime Minister.

The remark was a clear rejection of the phrase George Osborne used when as chancellor he attempted to frame Britain as Beijing’s “best partner in the West”.

Mr Sunak used his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on Monday night to reject the “naive idea” that free trade would result in the emergence of democracy in China.

But he also warned against a return to Cold War-style hostilities, arguing “we cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs”.

The address was an attempt to map out Mr Sunak’s foreign policy vision, including relations with Beijing, after he was criticised by Tory China hawks for softening his predecessor Liz Truss’s stance.

The A4 revolution

On Monday, Chinese censors scrubbed images of white paper from the internet amid a clamp down on the “A4 revolution” mass protests against Xi Jinping’s zero Covid policy.

Demonstrators have held aloft sheets of blank white paper to symbolise their lack of freedom of speech in the most serious show of dissent in the Communist country since pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In his speech, Mr Sunak outlined his two-track approach to Beijing - a willingness to call out China over wrongdoing while also engaging on areas where cooperation is needed.

Mr Sunak said: “Let’s be clear, the so-called 'golden era' is over, along with the naive idea that trade would 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.

Climate change and economic stability

“Of course, we cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs - to global economic stability or issues like climate change. The US, Canada, Australia, Japan and many others understand this too.

“So, together we’ll manage this sharpening competition, including with diplomacy and engagement. Much of this is about dramatically improving our resilience, particularly our economic security.”

Mr Osborne, who was David Cameron’s chancellor from 2010 to 2016, talked about a “golden era” or a “golden decade” in Sino-British relations.

The phrase has been seen as the embodiment of a misguided foreign policy approach by China sceptics in the Conservative Party, who want a firmer stance towards Beijing and have grown in number in recent years.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, on Monday criticised Mr Sunak’s use of the phrase “robust pragmatism”.

The Prime Minister vowed to “stand up to our competitors, not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism”.

Sir Ian told The Telegraph: “I don’t agree that we want ‘robust pragmatism’ - what we have to recognise is China is posing a greater and greater threat to the way we live our lives.”

China ‘a threat’

Mr Sunak indicated earlier this month that he would not follow his predecessor, Ms Truss, in labelling China a “threat” in the updated version of the “integrated review”, a strategy published last year bringing together foreign, security and defence policy.

Elsewhere in the speech, Mr Sunak reiterated Britain's support for Ukraine, following his recent visit to the country’s capital Kyiv.

Mr Sunak said: “Be in no doubt. We will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. We will maintain or increase our military aid next year. And we will provide new support for air defence, to protect the Ukrainian people and the critical infrastructure they rely on.”