Beijing has urged British politicians to exercise restraint in their comments on China, saying “hyping the China threat” would not help solve the UK’s own problems.
Asked about Rishi Sunak’s comments, where he labelled China as Britain’s biggest long-term threat and pledged to close all UK-based Confucius Institutes, Zhao Lijian, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, declined to offer specific comments, saying the election of the next Tory leader is the UK’s internal affair.
But he added: “I do want to inform some UK politicians that they can’t solve their own problems by frequently using China to make arguments and hyping the ‘China threat’ and other irresponsible statements.”
In an attempt to shift focus in the Tory leadership race on to international affairs and national security, both candidates – Sunak and Liz Truss – have issued strong statements on China, portraying the UK’s largest import partner and sixth-largest export partner for goods a “threat”.
On Monday, Sunak is expected to say that China “is the biggest-long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security”, citing the views of the director general of MI5 and head of the FBI.
Sunak will also take a swipe at Truss and other western politicians for having “turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions” and call for a new Nato alliance to be set up to counter it.
“I will change this on day one as PM,” Sunak will say on Monday. “I will stop China taking over our universities, and get British companies and public institutions the cybersecurity they need. And I will work with President Biden and other world leaders to transform the west’s resilience to the threat China poses.”
Until recently, Sunak was perceived by Chinese state media as a more balanced candidate when it comes to China. In a report on 14 July, the state-owned Global Times newspaper said although Beijing did not expect a sea-change in the bilateral relationship under Britain’s new leader, it still hoped the two sides could improve ties. It said Sunak had a “pragmatic view of developing balanced ties with China”.
By contrast, the nationalist tabloid has long held a grudge against Truss. When an alleged spat between Truss and the UK’s ambassador to China broke out last year, the newspaper suggested Truss was “a radical populist” and quoted Chinese internet users calling the UK “Little Britain”.
The Truss campaign has insisted that she has “strengthened Britain’s position on China since becoming foreign secretary and helped lead the international response to increased Chinese aggression”. They said that she will continue to do so if elected.
In public, Beijing sticks to its “non-interference” foreign policy when it comes to political reshuffles in foreign countries. Earlier this month when Boris Johnson resigned, Beijing took the same line when asked by journalists.
Beijing urged London to “take a long-term perspective and keep in mind the larger picture”. It also called on the next Tory leader to “work with China in the same direction, and promote the sustained and steady development of bilateral relations”.