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Addressing Britain’s China challenge

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intends for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to become the world’s greatest power. It explicitly rejects the values upon which free and open countries are founded. It sees these countries as ‘hostile foreign forces’ and blames them for its internal problems. The PRC is a hostile power, but one with which the United Kingdom (UK) shall have to continue to have close dealings.

The arrival of Liz Truss as prime minister and James Cleverly as the new secretary of state at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is a good time to take stock of Britain’s relations with the PRC. Below are some thoughts on the most immediate priorities. Some measures are already in progress, although a lack of transparency makes it difficult for outsiders to judge.

Importance of strategy

The April 2019 Foreign Affairs Committee report on the PRC called on the government to set out a strategy. In his treatise The Art of War, the Chinese strategist Sunzi said that: ‘Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.’ If Her Majesty’s (HM) Government has a strategy – officials prefer to talk of ‘an approach to China’ – it is not widely known inside or outside Whitehall. The FCDO has published a detailed policy paper on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations containing 181 measures. Is it impossible to do the same for the PRC?

The threat of [a Taiwan] invasion is one of the greatest worries for the future. HM Government urgently needs a policy – or if it has one, to make it clear.

Underpinning a PRC strategy requires:

  • Getting Whitehall structures right. A PRC ‘tsar’ might be needed to ensure coordination across departments. The China National Strategy Implementation Group should be strengthened, and the National Security Council should deliberate on the PRC more often than its current once or twice a year.
  • Consulting with experts. Good PRC expertise exists in universities and think tanks. A PRC strategy requires continual updating and therefore continual consultation. Government assumptions on the PRC should be challenged, if the UK is to avoid the Golden ‘Error’ when HM Treasury under George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, dominated policy.
  • Promulgation. Whitehall departments, Parliament, business, academia and society need to understand what lies behind the UK’s relations with the PRC.
  • Raising awareness in the capitals of Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast, and in Manchester (where the PRC has a consulate). The CCP likes to influence local governments, which are often less well informed than the central government, as a way of getting round restrictions.

Whitehall research

Understanding CCP ambitions, intentions and methods is essential. Amongst many aspects perhaps the most important or immediate are:

  • Decoupling. What should this mean? From which areas of the economy and society should CCP participation be excluded? What can be done to minimise unavoidable but undesirable dependencies?
  • CCP threats. The CCP seeks to influence UK policy by threatening to curtail trade, services, investment, students, tourism and cooperation on climate change. Research indicates that such threats are exaggerated, but HM  Government needs to validate or disprove this for itself.
  • CCP interference in Britain. Anecdotes abound. But to what degree is CCP interference actually changing UK policies?

Being seen as a ‘China hawk’ may be tempting, but a better approach is always to assert soberly the right to protect the four pillars of national security, economic prosperity, personal data and values.

Protecting Britain’s science and technology

The CCP has a ‘whole-of-state’ approach to getting hold of foreign science and technology. This is aimed at making good its own weaknesses. It sees domination of new technologies and new industries as the key to economic and thereby geopolitical pre-eminence. The UK must better protect itself against Chinese methods, overt and covert, of accessing sensitive science and technology. This is arguably the top priority for HM Government. Some measures are in hand, but greater depth and urgency is required. In particular:

  • An open-source science and technology intelligence centre, located in the intelligence services, but separate from covert intelligence collection, and therefore more accessible to officials without higher security clearances. 
  • More covert intelligence efforts on what the CCP (and its military) are doing in the British science and technology field, where vulnerabilities exist, and which individuals or companies are evading restrictions.
  • A more in-depth analysis centre focussing on the PRC’s science and technology efforts.
  • Greater and better targeted investment in UK start-ups in new technology fields. This would build on the National Security Strategic Investment Fund.
  • A mechanism for ensuring that companies, researchers and academics can find out quickly what and with whom cooperation in science and technology is permissible. The Research Collaboration Advisory Team’s remit and resources need strengthening.
  • Better implementation of existing legislation. The passing of the National Security and Investment Act was welcome. But implementation lags. Britain continually finds itself playing catch-up. 
  • A clearer policy on what Chinese technologies may be imported into the UK. For example, HM Government has not taken measures to restrict the Internet of Things cellular modules from Chinese companies. These components are a bigger threat to Britain’s security than Chinese 5G systems or closed circuit television cameras.

Building fences to make good neighbours: Countering interference

It is not clear that HM Government has conducted in-depth research into interference and come up with policies to counter threats. Five years ago, it established the Joint State Threats Assessment Team, located in the Security Service. Its role is not apparent to some insiders, let alone those outside HM Government. Yet, transparency is an important weapon against the CCP’s ‘coercive, covert and corrupt[ing]’ interference. Amongst other measures to combat interference, the HM Government should:

  • Establish an Australian-style National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator’s Office, with a government wide remit and a budget to ensure that recommendations are implemented.
  • Revise and reinforce the remit of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. Its role is to ensure that former ministers and senior civil servants do not move immediately from their jobs to lucrative work which is inappropriate given their past employment. At present, a number receive, directly or indirectly, remuneration from certain companies or from organisations connected to the CCP. The resulting lobbying equates to helping a hostile state.
  • Investigate the threat to academia from the CCP, including having a sensible policy on Confucius Institutes (not banning them, which would result in the closure of the British Council in the PRC, but insisting on four conditions: transparency of finances; published contracts; the use of UK, not Chinese, law in contracts; and no role in universities). Another measure would be to insist that CCP members in British academia declare their affiliation; concealment, if discovered, would be grounds for dismissal.


The threat of invasion is one of the greatest worries for the future. HM Government urgently needs a policy – or if it has one, to make it clear. This entails:

  • Rebutting CCP insistence that the UK subscribes to the ‘One China Principle’. Britain holds to a ‘One China Policy’. The difference is important. When establishing relations with the PRC, HM Government noted the CCP’s views on Taiwan, but specifically did not endorse them. Ministers should be clear on this.
  • Economic deterrence. Military deterrence has its part, but more important is to let the CCP know that invasion would result in sanctions. Like the nuclear deterrent, this is mutual assured destruction. The CCP is aware that the resulting economic crash would cause unemployment and unrest, potentially threatening its hold on power.
  • More visits from ministers with technical portfolios, parliamentarians and other arms of government. The UK has avoided visits by national leaders, ministers of foreign affairs and defence. But that should not be extended to trade, environment, civil affairs and more.
  • Defending Taiwan’s shared values. This includes supporting Taiwan in relevant international organisations. There should be no self-imposed ban on arms exports: the maintenance of the right of Taiwanese people to choose their own way of life is paramount. But generalised announcements of a willingness to sell arms to Taiwan are not beneficial. If Taiwan makes a specific request for arms which boost asymmetrical defence (Taiwan cannot match the PRC in conventional arms), they should be considered.

And finally, language matters

The CCP is quick to attack when it perceives countries acting against its interests. Disarming such aggressiveness requires a firm but polite response. Being seen as a ‘China hawk’ may be tempting, but a better approach is always to assert soberly the right to protect the four pillars of national security, economic prosperity, personal data and values. The UK should emphasise reciprocity and a desire to cooperate with the PRC to the full – but in the recognition that both sides will have to make exclusions which affect those four pillars.

Charles Parton is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He spent 22 years of his 37-year diplomatic career in the British Diplomatic Service working in or on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

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