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Former Tory Leader Says Government Is "Asleep At The Wheel" On China Risks

Iain Duncan-Smith is one of Parliament's strongest proponents of a tough foreign policy stance on China (Alamy)

5 min read

Iain Duncan Smith has accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” over international security concerns relating to China, after days of speculation over possible spy balloons in Western airspace.

The former Conservative party leader believes the government is acting indecisively and failing to view and treat the Chinese state as a “systemic threat”.

Duncan Smith, co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and a longtime proponent of a tougher stance on China, accused the Foreign Office and Treasury – two of the four great offices of state – of prioritising business and economic interests over national security.

China is home to some of the earth’s rarest natural minerals, a fact Duncan Smith claims is allowing them to wield an “enormously big stick” over the UK, as it results in government departments being unwilling to damage trade relations with China despite security concerns. 

“At every turn, the Foreign Office and the Treasury make excuses,” he told PoliticsHome.

“It is yet another example of a lack of joined up thinking on China.” 

The United States has shot down four aerial objects over North America since 4 February, the first of which China admitted ownership, but claimed it was a weather device blown astray. 

The origin and purpose of the other three balloons has not yet been publicly disclosed. 

On Monday, UK transport minister Richard Holden suggested it is “possible” China has also flown spy balloons over the UK.

As more details are yet to emerge on the possible spy balloons, Duncan Smith believes the signs are already there that China is growing more powerful and increasing its share in global manufacturing.

UK intelligence agency GCHQ has repeatedly raised concerns about the security risks posed by China, particularly by the country gaining "strategic advantage by shaping the world's technology ecosystem" through companies such as the telecommunications firm Huawei and the social media platform TikTok. 

On Thursday the US government voted unanimously to formally condemn China for its use of a surveillance balloon, but Duncan Smith said that in contrast, the UK “doesn’t really know” what its stance is on China. 

“We’ve been lazy and asleep at the wheel, so we have to get that changed,” he said. 

The influential backbencher claimed that upon taking office, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has had to soften his language on China due to what he speculated is pressure from “Foreign Office officials”.

“As soon as he got in, Foreign Office officials would have lined up and said: ‘You’ve got to change the language on China. If you continue to call them a threat then you will have to change the integrated review, China will take a dim view and we’ll start losing business'." He believes the Treasury could have taken a similar stance with Sunak. 

In a speech in November, Sunak outlined his vision to stand up to international competitors with “robust pragmatism” – a phrase not welcomed by Duncan-Smith.

“Robust pragmatism tells you a lot about the mindset of the officials in the Treasury and the Foreign Office – these two departments have a massive hole in government policy,” he said.

Duncan Smith added that he feels the government is in “such a mess” over China and he thinks they may have to reconsider the Integrated Review of Security. An update to the review is due to be published on 7 March.

It was last published by former prime minister Boris Johnson in 2021 to look at UK policy responses to international threats, and was described by Johnson as "the largest review of its kind since the Cold War".

In response to the potential use of surveillance balloons, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said he wants to work with other nations to identify and prevent similar threats, and has said that if one of the balloons was sighted over the UK, it would be shot down.

Duncan Smith said he considers Wallace to be “trustworthy” but questioned whether there were sufficient plans in place should such a situation arise. 

“It again comes back to a government policy that is ambivalent. How do you do any serious policy making?,” he said. 

The MP, who has already been sanctioned by China, also attended a protest outside the Foreign Office on Monday with human rights activists, calling on China to "restore the rights, privileges and freedoms for the people of Xinjiang who are Uyghur". 

A government spokesperson said: “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.

“The UK will continue to defend human rights by speaking out and taking action where we have concerns – as we have done over Hong Kong and Xinjiang.  

“We have brought in new powers to block any Chinese investment that risk our national security and we are currently updating the Integrated Review, which will take into account the evolving challenges posed by China.”

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