Rishi Sunak calls China ‘systemic challenge’, in sign of softer UK stance

PM’s remarks at G20 summit suggest shift away from Liz Truss pledge to redesignate Beijing as a ‘threat’

Rishi Sunak has rowed back from officially recategorising China as a “threat”, saying he views the country as a “systemic challenge”, despite concerted pressure from Conservative MPs.

The prime minister’s remarks are likely to draw ire from the large group of China sceptics on the Conservative backbenches, including former leader Iain Duncan Smith and others such as Alicia Kearns, who chairs the foreign affairs select committee.

Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, pledged to officially redesignate China in official parlance and documents as a “threat” instead of a “systemic competitor”, as it was categorised under Boris Johnson.

Truss had also criticised Sunak during their leadership contest for considering a restart both of the UK-China Joint Economic and Trade Commission and the UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue, a trade summit that has not been held since 2019.

Speaking at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, Sunak defended his approach and said it was in line with most of the UK’s allies, as he shied away from calling China a threat, changing his description to “challenge” while answering reporters’ questions.

“My view on China is straightforward. I think that China unequivocally poses a systemic threat – well, a systemic challenge – to our values, and our interests, and is undoubtedly the biggest state-based threat to our economic security, let me put it that way. That’s how I think about China,” he said.

“That’s what I said over the summer. That’s why it’s important that we take the powers that we need to defend ourselves against that.”

Sunak said the National Security and Investment Act was a key part of the UK having the necessary powers to take action against China as a security risk.

However, he said world leaders could not ignore China as a vital player. “I also think that China is an indisputable fact of the global economy and we’re not going to be able to resolve shared global challenges like climate change, or public health, or indeed actually dealing with Russia and Ukraine, without having a dialogue with them.”

In his comments, Sunak twice refused to say whether he intended to recategorise China as a threat. “I think that view, by the way, is highly aligned with our allies.

“So if you look at the US national security strategy that was published just a couple of weeks ago, and if you look at how they describe their view of China and how to deal with it, I think you’ll find that it’s very similar to how I’ve just described it to you.

“The Canadians, the Australians, their versions of that strategy all say similar things. So what I’m saying to you, I think, is the shared view amongst our closest allies.”

On Taiwan, Sunak was cautious about making the same commitment as Truss, though he did not explicitly rule out increasing UK support. “We’re looking at all of these policies as part of our refresh of the integrated review,” he said.

“Our policy on Taiwan is obviously there should be no unilateral change to the status and there should be a peaceful resolution to that situation. We stand ready to support Taiwan as we do in standing up to Chinese aggression.”

During his unsuccessful initial campaign to be party leader, Sunak promised to shut down the 30 Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes in the UK, amid concerns they have sometimes been used as a front for the country’s ruling Communist party.

At that time, Sunak told the Daily Telegraph that China and the Chinese Communist party were the “biggest long-term threat” to the UK. “For too long, politicians in Britain and across the west have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions,” he said.


Jessica Elgot in Bali

The GuardianTramp

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