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By Christina Georgaki
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Rishi Sunak Urged To Match "Robust" China Rhetoric With Policy “Depth”

Alicia Kearns, chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee, wants to see stronger policy on China from Rishi Sunak

4 min read

An influential Conservative MP has questioned the “depth” of Rishi Sunak's approach to China as he prepares to deliver his first foreign policy speech as Prime Minister.

Alicia Kearns, chair of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, told PoliticsHome she welcomed Sunak's call for “robust pragmatism” in relations with Beijing, but said it must be backed up by immediate measures such as a “cross-government resilience forum” to deal with the various threats coming from China.

Sunak is due to speak at at the annual Lord Mayor's Banquet in London on Monday night where he is expected to outline his vision for the UK to stand up to competitors around the world rather than rely on "grand rhetoric”, in a clear attempt to break with Boris Johnson's approach to foreign policy as prime minister. 

He will rule out "short-termism" and "wishful thinking" when dealing with adversaries, and tell international dignitaries and business leaders he will "do things differently".

China is currently gripped by protests from its citizens against the state’s controversial “zero Covid” strategy, which saw a BBC journalist arrested off the street in Shanghai and allegedly beaten by police yesterday.

While China hardliners in the Conservative party believe Sunak's use of the term “robust pragmatism” suggests he wants to have warmer relations with Beijing – something Downing Street has rejected – Kearns, who is chair of the China Research Group, said the language “rings exactly the sorts of bells I want to be hearing”.

“I think those in Parliament who are calling for us to cut off relations with China, or suggesting that we can somehow afford to isolate them entirely from our system, that’s just not pragmatic, it’s not realistic,” the MP for Rutland and Melton told PoliticsHome.

“We do need to cooperate with China on some issues, we need to contest on some issues and challenge them too.”

But she believed such language still needed to be matched by tangible action from government. 

"Is there any depth to it? That is the question,” she added.

Kearns pointed out that in the summer leadership contest Sunak “promised on day one as Prime Minister he would change our China foreign policy,” and that so far he has failed to deliver on that.

Last week the government banned Hikvision, a firm linked to the Chinese state and involved in the surveillance of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, from providing CCTV equipment onto “sensitive sites” in the UK.

But Kearns, who had been calling for such a move for over a year, said the move failed to go far enough.

“It's a good step forward, but actually it's not substantive – it's one organisation, it doesn't deal with all the other organisations that are just as backed by Chinese state as Hikvision,” she said.

"It shouldn't be only secure sites that we're not allowing them on, it should be any British soil at all. There's not enough depth to it.”

Alicia Kearns MP
The chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Tory MP Alicia Kearns

The Government is also in the process of updating the integrated review of defence and foreign policy, with Sunak set to say this evening the UK will “make an evolutionary leap in our approach”.

Kearns said she was looking forward to hearing Sunak's “initial overview tonight of his vision of global Britain”, but wanted some more policies too, such as a resilience forum bringing together the key decision makers across government. She would also like to see reform of the Procurement Bill so “it meaningfully looks at hostile state actors and how we keep them out of our system.”, and follow through on the UK’s promise to sanction the former Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.

“I think the Chinese are very good at compartmentalising, and so that's exactly what we should be doing, work out where we can cooperate and where we need to challenge," she continued. 

“We do need to do a shift away from just insulting China, which is not what the government has done, but it's an easy trap people can fall into.

“We need to respect that China is a major world power, respect that China has incredible history and culture, and China has much to offer the world.

“But it can only make that offer it limits the worst excesses of its own behaviour.”

But she welcomed Downing Street’s statement that the government would not seek to "conflate" its stance on the right to protest with its intention to build "constructive relationships" with China on other issues.

Asked if Sunak is concerned that co-operation on matters such as climate change and the global economy will be hampered if he takes a firm line on protests, the prime minister's official spokesman said the UK believed in the importance of the right to protest. 

“Arresting journalists is unacceptable and we will not change that position," they said. 

"But that does not mean we will not seek to have constructive relationships with China on other issues and attempt to solve some of these global [issues].”

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