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Government Accused Of A "Wishy Washy" Stance On China

James Cleverly met Chinese Vice President Han Zheng in Beijing at the end of August (Alamy)

5 min read

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith has described the government’s stance on China as “wishy washy”, after the government responded to a damning report by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC).

The ISC published its China report in July, having started its inquiry in 2019, in which it criticised the UK government for “failing to think long term” about threats posed by China and stated that China “oversteps the boundary” from influence to interference in UK affairs. 

UK government figures have been reluctant to describe China as a “threat” and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden warned against shutting out China after it was revealed a parliamentary researcher with links to a number of prominent Conservative MPs was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing. The researcher has not been charged and denies the allegation.

In its response to the ISC report published on Thursday, however, the UK government admitted Chinese action “crosses the line from influence into interference” and said that action is being taken to address this. It said it recognised there was “more to do”, particularly in the area of higher education, where the report claimed there were “Chinese attempts to interfere and stifle debate amongst the academic community in the UK”.

Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith, one of the most prominent China ‘hawks’ in parliament, told PoliticsHome he believed the government’s response was “wishy washy” and a “very typical Sir Humphrey response” – referring to a fictional character from the TV series Yes Minister who is known for his manipulative language and delaying tactics. 

“They ‘sort of agree’ China does cross the line but otherwise their statements are ‘wishy washy’,” Duncan Smith said. 

“What the government is doing is trying to not pick a fight. It's a very typical Sir Humphrey response to the report: it hasn't dismissed it and it hasn't completely agreed with it.

“Their response is fairly waffly, it constantly refers to actions taken and their determination not to do things.”

In Duncan Smith’s view, the government has still failed to set out appropriate action in response to allegations of espionage in parliament, as well as identifying and tackling risks associated with Chinese investment in the UK nuclear industry. 

“The government is way behind the curve with what is going on with Chinese involvement in the nuclear industry, their response to that is astonishingly weak,” he continued. 

“The report talks about the scale of investments by China in general nuclear power in the UK civil sector, it demonstrates China's determination to become a permanent player in the UK nuclear sector and unfortunately the government is willing to let China invest in such a sensitive sector.

“It’s not as though the report was soft on this, it said it's unacceptable for the government to still be considering Chinese involvement in the UK in it’s critical national infrastructure at a granular level.

“It’s just astonishing that that's where we are. The report is saying that's where we are and you haven't done anything about that.”

The former Conservative leader was openly critical of Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s decision to visit China in August, the first trip to the country by a UK foreign secretary for five years.

However, Duncan Smith insisted he does not have a “problem” with the UK engaging with China, but believes the UK should engage in tougher diplomacy. 

“I just want them to engage from a position of strength,” he told PoliticsHome. 

“They should say to them: ‘Cease and desist. We're taking action to block you, so if you carry on like this, it makes the relationship impossible’. So in other words, give them a very hearty warning.

“To have a strong relationship, a strong position with China you need to wield the means that make it difficult for them to intervene and carry out cyber attacks.

“With the report, the question is, have you done enough? And the answer that comes across from the ISC is ‘no’. The government then goes on to step away from that.”

A number of other MPs agree with Duncan Smith: Henry Smith, the Conservative MP for Crawley and a member of the foreign affairs select committee, told PoliticsHome he thinks a “more comprehensive and coherent China strategy” is still needed from the government.

Labour MP and fellow Foreign Affairs Committee member Neil Coyle accused the government of “ignoring national security threats”.

“We know the regime in China has heavily invested in monitoring UK parliamentarians and that Westminster has been the target for significant levels of attention, including the recent spy issue, but even targeting selections of future MPs,” he said.

“For the government to continue ignoring the threat is an abdication of responsibility. Ministers are ignoring national security threats.

“It’s all very well ‘accepting’ [the report], but what will ministers now do is the point. They seem reluctant to get out of bed [with China], frankly.”

Luke de Pulford, Executive Director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, held a slightly more optimistic view on the UK government’s position.

“The government’s response indicates that they are inching in the right direction,” he told PoliticsHome.

“It’s just a shame they have to be dragged kicking and screaming every inch of the way. There’s no escaping the hard reality that the UK has done nothing to hold Beijing to account for its human rights abuses and destruction of Hong Kong.

“And the slightly tougher language in this response has yet to translate into a coherent policy capable of insulating the UK from crippling dependency. Let’s hope that if anything good is to come of this suspected spying scandal, it’ll be cabinet unity and concrete change.”

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