What did Rishi Sunak say about China? Speech explained - and what it means for UK foreign policy

The Prime Minister had been under pressure from Conservative Party MPs to take a tougher stance on the autocratic regime of President Xi Jinping

Rishi Sunak has delivered a major speech outlining the UK’s foreign policy objectives with China.

The Prime Minister’s words came after he was put under major pressure from many of his own Conservative Party MPs to take a tough stance on the autocratic state. The Tories have taken a variety of approaches towards the country over the last decade, with Liz Truss following a hardline policy and David Cameron opting for a ‘golden era’ in relations.

As Sunak delivered his speech, huge protests continued against President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its ‘zero Covid’ policy. Civil unrest is uncommon in China given the brutal crackdowns the state usually metes out at any sign of dissent - something that was even seen in Manchester in October.

Populations in major centres - from Shanghai to Chongqing - have faced strict lockdowns ever since the beginning of the pandemic in the country in early 2020. While protests against these stringent anti-Covid measures have broken out before, these current demonstrations are on a scale not seen since the lead up to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

This situation gave added weight to Sunak’s keynote foreign policy speech. So, what did Rishi Sunak say at London’s Guildhall - and what does it mean for UK foreign policy? Here’s what you need to know.

Rishi Sunak is seeking to take a ‘robustly pragmatic’ approach to China (image: Getty Images)

What did Rishi Sunak say about China?

On Monday (28 November), Rishi Sunak delivered his first major foreign policy speech at the annual Lord Mayor’s banquet at London’s Guildhall.

While the PM’s speech covered the UK’s attitude to the entire world, its major focus was on China. The state has been pursuing a foreign policy that has been deemed to be aggressive by some Western states, with frequent allegations of espionage levelled at President Xi Jinping’s regime.

Sunak said the UK could not afford to use “Cold War arguments or approaches” against China, and said the country would be “standing up to our competitors” with “robust pragmatism”.

The PM also made implicit criticism of previous Conservative leaders by saying that “short-termism or wishful thinking will not suffice” given states like China “plan for the long-term”.

In a direct reference to former Tory PM David Cameron’s China policy, 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.

President Xi Jinping has cemented his grip on power in China in 2022 (image: Getty Images)

“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.”

But Sunak insisted the UK “cannot ignore China’s significance in world affairs” and would seek to manage the country “with diplomacy and engagement”.

What did Rishi Sunak’s China speech mean?

Essentially, Rishi Sunak’s policy draws a middle line between the Cameron and Osborne ‘golden era’ approach and Liz Truss’s hardline stance on the Asian state being a “threat” to the UK.

He wants the UK to engage with China on issues like climate change, international security and human rights, whilst also providing a check against its expansionist impulses - an approach espoused by US President Joe Biden.

Protests against China’s zero Covid strategy have erupted across the country (image: Getty Images)

The PM also wants to underline that the country can be tough when it wants to be, but is also keen to tone down the language aimed at Beijing. It shows there is a clear desire in Downing Street to avoid a situation akin to the Cold War.

However, Sunak could be on course to repeat the mistakes of the past, according to prominent Conservative backbencher and China hawk Iain Duncan Smith.

Writing in the Daily Express, the MP compared the PM’s approach to the UK policy of appeasement in the 1930s when Nazi Germany was increasingly becoming a threat to European security.

Meanwhile, Politico has reported comments from the hawkish Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), whose founder Luke de Pulford said: “Pragmatism (read: compromise) in pursuit of economic interests isn’t new. It’s the busted foreign policy Britain PLC has pursued for decades, most notably under [George] Osborne’s doomed Golden Era.”

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Nigel Inkster - senior China advisor at foreign affairs think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies - said he did not think the golden age in China-UK relations "was ever real and substantial".

Instead, he said: "It attempted to focus on economic relations with China while putting geopolitics to one side, and experience shows you simply can’t do that. China in its present form is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and I think the Marxist-Leninist dialogue is only going to increase so we are going to have to learn to get used to this."