> Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss talk tough on China in race for No 10

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss talk tough on China in race for No 10

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have clashed over who would take the toughest stance on China in the battle to become Britain’s next prime minister, as the two Tory leadership contenders prepared for a crucial head-to-head television debate on Monday.

Sunak, the former chancellor, said China represented “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century” and proposed a series of measures to reduce Beijing’s influence in the UK.

But allies of Truss, the foreign secretary, said Sunak had been “soft” over China and that he had, until recently, been planning to hold a UK-China economic and finance conference for the first time since 2019.

Sunak said he would ban all 30 branches of the Confucius Institute in the UK, arguing that the educational and cultural organisation is used by the Chinese government to promote soft power in Britain’s universities.

He also promised tougher use of new national security laws to protect UK tech start-ups from Chinese investment and a new “Nato-style” international alliance to tackle Chinese cyberthreats.

But Truss, who is campaigning as a foreign policy hawk, claimed she had been much more willing than the former chancellor to stand up to Beijing.

Her allies pointed out that this year Sunak was planning to restart the UK China Economic and Financial Dialogue. The former chancellor’s team said the event was cancelled in the spring.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader and a longtime China hawk, said in response to Sunak’s comments: “I have one simple question: where have you been over the last two years?”

Sunak and Truss are vying for the support of around 160,000 Conservative members who will begin voting in early August to choose their next leader, who as head of the ruling party becomes Britain’s next prime minister.

A winner of the contest will be declared on September 5, when MPs return from their summer break.

The first television debate between the two candidates, hosted by the BBC, will take place on Monday

Meanwhile, Truss will announce plans for a series of “investment zones” with low regulation, tax breaks and looser planning rules, which she claims would lead to building of a new generation of model towns.

Truss will present the towns — which her team says are inspired by the likes of Bournville near Birmingham and Saltaire near Bradford — as the cornerstone of her drive to boost growth.

The policy is not dissimilar to Sunak’s own plan to create a series of freeports around the country — also with tax breaks and streamlined planning processes.

But Truss insisted Sunak’s plan was too centralised with too much “top down” control. Critics of the “enterprise zone” concept say it just shifts economic growth from one place to another.

The shift to China and the latest economic policy initiative, comes after Truss and Sunak sought over the weekend to outdo each on tougher immigration policies.

Sunak hinted he would clamp down on the number of people fleeing war and persecution who would be allowed to enter the UK. Truss said she would seek to strike more deals with third countries to process asylum claims made in the UK, following the controversial partnership agreed with Rwanda.

Immigration frequently ranks near the top of the concerns of party members and Sunak, who is currently the underdog in the contest, needs quickly to make up ground on Truss.

Truss’s team claimed Sunak’s plan to house migrants on cruise ships instead of hotels would break international law; Sunak’s allies said it was “good to see Remainer Truss on the side of human rights lawyers”, a reference to the foreign secretary’s support for staying in the EU ahead of the 2016 referendum.

Sam Nadel, Oxfam head of government relations, said if Sunak won the race he would have to show leadership: “Cruel policies such as these would not live up to the role. We need more aid and safe and legal routes to the UK.”

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