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Britain Grapples with China

By Christopher Hope


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Slowly but surely it is possible to detect that the Government is starting to plan for a life after Covid-19. And sure enough some of the old conflicts are returning.

Today Boris Johnson published the results of a months’-long rethink of the Government’s defence, security and foreign policy outlook, called the Integrated Review.

The 114-page document, titled “Global Britain in a competitive age”, sets out what role Mr Johnson sees the country playing to 2030 and what needs to change to maximise success.

Some Conservative MPs are already worried about the hand of friendship being offered to China in the new strategy.

The integrated review said that the UK should “engage with China and remain open to Chinese trade and investment”.

Mr Johnson underlined this in the Commons this lunchtime, telling MPs: “There is no question that China will pose a great challenge for an open society such as ours.

“But we will also work with China where that is consistent with our values and interests, including building a stronger and positive economic relationship and in addressing climate change.

Tory defence committee chairman Tobias Ellwood said the review had failed to “finally call out China for the geo-political threat it is”, saying there was a “1930s feel” to challenges posed by “rising authoritarian powers”.

And Julian Lewis, who has oversight of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ as chairman of the intelligence and security committee, added that this “demonstrates that the grasping naivety of the Cameron-Osborne years still lingers on”.

The reaction in Beijing might have been one of puzzlement. Last year Mr Johnson moved to eject Chinese telecoms company Huawei from the UK’s nascent 5G broadband infrastructure.

And even last week Foreign Office minister Nigel Adams was on the offensive, disclosing to Parliament the UK’s concern that China has secretly been harassing British Uighurs living in the UK “in an effort to intimidate them into silence”.

So what does it all mean? For China’s cheerleaders, Mr Johnson is demonstrating that the UK simply has to engage with (what the review describes as) Beijing’s “increasing power and international assertiveness”. This is – the review says – “likely to be the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s”.

Yet, as the China Research Group of Tory MPs point out, the review also identifies China as “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security”.

Here lies the truth of Britain’s predicament: post-Brexit UK has little choice but to forge its own path outside the European Union and engage with China economically, while robustly criticising it for its human rights abuses. It will not be easy.

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