He said the UK needed to replace wishful thinking with “robust pragmatism” in standing up to global competitors like China, as he signalled an “evolutionary leap” in British foreign policy.
Sunak said he would set a fresh direction for the UK’s place in the world, after the premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and promised better relations with Europe amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London’s Guildhall, Sunak criticised China’s human rights abuses, and reiterated government criticism of the arrest of a BBC journalist covering Covid protests in China, but admitted that the country’s global significance can not be ignored.
It comes after Sunak faced pressure from Tory backbenchers to toughen the UK’s stance on China since he took over as leader last month and used his speech on monday to show he will not stand for its actions, saying things are not black and white when it comes to China.
He said: “We also need to evolve our approach to China," he said, as he laid out his stance on foreign policy. Let’s be clear, the so-called ‘golden era’ is over, along with the naïve 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.”
However, he also warned that the UK “cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs – to global economic stability or issues like climate change”, adding that with allies, the UK will “manage this sharpening competition, including with diplomacy and engagement”.
The Prime Minister stressed that the UK needs to stand up to its competitors, but warned against “Cold War rhetoric”. He said: “Russia is challenging the fundamental principles of the UN Charter. China is consciously competing for global influence using all the levers of state power.
“In the face of these challenges, short-termism or wishful thinking will not suffice. We can’t depend on Cold War arguments or approaches, or mere sentimentality about our past.”
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.”
‘Evolving relations with Europe’
Elsewhere in his speech, Sunak said that his administration was “reinvigorating” European relationships to tackle migration and improve security, while also pledged to “never align” the UK with EU law.
He said: “We’re also evolving our wider post-Brexit relations with Europe, including bilaterally and engaging with the new European Political Community. But this is not about greater alignment. Under my leadership we’ll never align with EU law.
“Instead, we’ll foster respectful, mature relationships with our European neighbours on shared issues like energy and illegal migration to strengthen our collective resilience against strategic vulnerabilities.”
His speech immediately received criticism, with Tory MP and former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith likening some of his language on China as close to “appeasement”. Meanwhile, Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy called the speech “as thin as gruel” stating: “All it shows is that once again the Conservative Government is flip-flopping its rhetoric on China. The government urgently needs to publish its long-promised China strategy as well as its update to the Integrated Review that is already out of date.”
Security minister Tom Tugendhat, who was a vocal China critic on the backbenches as chair of the Foreign Affairs committee, was pressed on government policy as he appeared on ITV’s Peston show.
Offering his backing to the Prime Minister’s approach, he said: “It’s something I’m going to be holding this government to. I’ve been very clear on my position on China for many years now.”
Pressed on whether the government might consider new sanctions on China amid a wave of protests there, he added: “I very much hope that the Foreign Office is watching very closely and is going to take action on this because the Foreign Office has got a responsibility to supervise what’s going on within China.”