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When it comes to China talking only goes so far

Chinese members of the Communist Party of China (Credit: Imaginechina Limited / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

At last month’s G7 leaders meeting in Japan, “de-risking” relations with China emerged as the buzzword of the moment.

This sentiment is admirable, but only works when based on a foundation of deterrence. An assertive China necessitates diplomatic dialogue, but we can only do so from a position of strength. 

For years the Chinese Communist Party has pursued with impunity a foreign policy that undermines Britain. Why should we expect China to behave any differently when its assaults on our security and values are met with apathy? 

Britain’s relationship with China is beset by a malaise in strategic thinking. Our set piece speeches and high-level roundtables are seldom memorable because there is great dissonance between our words and our actions. 

Britain’s relationship with China is beset by a malaise in strategic thinking

This is why I have outlined three tests for the Prime Minister on United Kingdom-China policy. If we can act decisively in three key areas, then we can build a model of deterrence that safeguards our people, supports our allies, and affords us some symmetry in our dealings with China. 

Firstly, the UK must seriously tackle the threat of transnational repression. As a bastion of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, we harbour dissidents from around the world. But if we cannot protect people on our own soil, then what chance do we have at upholding human rights around the world? 

For six months, myself and other MPs raised the alarm over Chinese police stations operating in the UK – spying, intimidating, and coercing the Chinese diaspora, Hongkongers and dissident voices. I am pleased that these stations are now unable to operate but we needed to move faster against them. How can there be any de-risking, let alone deterrence, if the Chinese Communist Party knows it can attack citizens in Britain with limited consequences?
Secondly, the UK must wake up to the threat of techno-authoritarianism. We are dangerously close to becoming dependent on Chinese technologies, and it is deeply concerning that public offices and strategic sites across the UK are procuring all kinds of equipment from a hostile state. 

It is absolutely terrifying that Chinese tracking devices have been found in government cars, and once again our ambivalence towards domestic technological security completely undermines our statements on the world stage. Last week’s adoption of my amendments to the Procurement Bill will meaningfully add to our national resilience, which will be the bedrock of our security in decades to come.

Finally, the UK must re-commit to upholding the rules-based international order, and not just in communiqués. Following the Second World War, we were instrumental in building the multilateral organisations that have guaranteed peace and prosperity for a generation. But we have grown complacent. 

When hostile states put forward their own candidates for key positions at the UN or Interpol and win, it is we who pay the price. The UK is world renowned for its diplomatic prowess and fundamental belief in the rule of law. We must bring a renewed sense of vigour to our activities at the UN and call out hostile states explicitly when they undermine our values. 

If the government can take serious steps in these three areas, then the UK can create meaningful strategic guardrails for its relationship with China. These actions will not only help us and our allies safeguard our prosperity and security, but create a more stable relationship with China – one in which risk can be properly calculated. 

We must never accept the argument that defence is an escalation. But we must also work to close the gap between our words and our actions. The world is entering a period of increased geopolitical volatility and the UK must take the proper steps to prepare for it.

Alicia Kearns, Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and chair of the China Research Group

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