Rishi Sunak has been accused by senior Tories of “kowtowing” to China as he defied calls to reclassify Beijing as a systemic threat to Britain.
The PM defended his policy of continuing to engage with China, despite believing that Xi Jinping’s “increasingly authoritarian” administration poses an “epoch-defining challenge” to the global order.
But Mr Sunak has sparked a row with China hawks in his party who had agreed with his predecessor Liz Truss that the country should be redesignated as a threat.
The row comes as the government prepares on Monday to publish an update to its foreign and security policy, motivated in part by concerns about China’s increasingly assertive global role.
Mr Sunak claimed during the Tory leadership contest that China represented the “biggest long-term threat to Britain” – but he appeared to soften his stance.
Asked about his previous comments on China, Mr Sunak told reporters: “We’ve recognised it as the biggest state-based threat to our economic security.”
The PM added: “What I would say is I don’t think it’s smart or sophisticated foreign policy to reduce our relationship with China – which, after all, is a country with one-and-a-half billion people, the second biggest economy and a member of the UN Security Council – to just two words.”
But former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said he feared the so-called Integrated Review would be “a wasted opportunity to call out China as they are, a threat to our way of life and physically to us”.
“By being weak in facing China, China doesn’t respect us,” the senior figure said, adding: “If we don’t show strength they won’t respect us. Project Kowtow is alive and well.”
Tory Alicia Kearns, chairwoman of the foreign affairs select committee, among those who have called for a tougher stance on China, also criticised the Sunak approach.
She said the threat “cannot be seen as primarily economic – that is to fail to understand China is foremost seeking to undermine our national security and sovereignty”, adding: “Because no country can have economic security without national security.
Mr Sunak will be in the US when the Integrated Review is published, holding talks with US oresident Joe Biden and Australian PM Anthony Albanese about the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine programme.
Speaking to reporters accompanying him on the trip, Mr Sunak said: “China represents a country that has very different values to ours.
“I think it presents an epoch-defining challenge to us and to the global order. It’s a regime that is increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad, and has a desire to reshape the world order.”
But he said “you can’t ignore China” given the size of the economy, so it was “necessary and right to try and engage with them” – claiming the UK was following a similar policy to its allies in engaging with Beijing.
Asked if he would travel to Beijing to meet the Chinese president, he said: “It’s not about going there or not going there. I think engagement is the point – that all our allies take the view that it’s right to engage with China, on the issues that we can find common ground.”
Mr Sunak has revealed an extra £5bn will be added to Britain’s military budget over the next year two years, as the government sets out the latest defence and foreign policy review.
The prime minister has also pledged to boost defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP in the long-term term, ducking Ms Truss’s more ambitious 3 per cent target.
The review will see the creation of a new agency within MI5 to provide a wide range of UK businesses and other organisations with immediate access to expert security advice.
Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China – an international campaign group – said there would be “concern” if the review “fails to acknowledge Beijing for the very real and present threat that it is”.