The Council on Geostrategy’s online magazine

About | Contributors | Submissions

The panda in the room – the UK’s China strategy

In its April 2019 report ‘China and the Rules-Based International System’ the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons called upon His Majesty’s (HM) Government to ‘…be in a position to publish a single, detailed, coherent cross-Government China strategy by the end of 2020.’ However, after three years, two iterations of the Integrated Review, the Foreign Secretary’s speech on United Kingdom (UK)-People’s Republic of China (PRC) relations in April and the Prime Minister’s attendance at May’s G7 meeting, in which the PRC featured prominently, Britain is still waiting. 

HM Government is not averse to publishing strategies: the ‘Integrated Review Refresh’ (IRR) lists at least 15 recently published strategies and promises another nine imminently. Strategies include food, development security, fraud, overseas territories, biodiversity, and many other important subjects, but curiously not the ‘epoch-defining and systemic challenge’, as Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, describes the PRC in the introduction to the IRR.

Challenged on this, government officials talk of ‘pathways’, ‘positions’ and ‘policies’, but they studiously avoid the ‘S’ word. It is the panda in the room. Liberal democracies like to contrast the transparency of their governance systems with that of authoritarian regimes. Yet to understand what a UK strategy for the PRC might be requires ‘Whitehallology’, a version of 20th century Kremlinology.

Generalities do not a strategy make

Speaking at Mansion House in the City of London, the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly outlined the UK government’s position on China.

So says HM Government’s introduction to the online publication of Cleverly’s speech. With its descriptions of Chinese history, civilisation and recent politics which would not have seemed out of place if they had emanated from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Propaganda Department, Cleverly’s speech echoed the overall framework of the IRR: Britain is to ‘protect, align, and engage’:

First, we will strengthen our national security protections wherever Beijing’s actions pose a threat to our people or our prosperity.

Second, the UK will deepen our cooperation and strengthen our alignment with our friends and partners in the Indo-Pacific and across the world.

The third pillar of our policy is to engage directly with China, bilaterally and multilaterally, to preserve and create open, constructive and stable relations, reflecting China’s global importance.

These presumably are the elements which make up what Sunak described in a foreign policy speech last November as ‘robust pragmatism’. But neither the Prime Minister nor his Foreign Secretary have explained the how and the what. Declaring three pillars is the easy part, but what do they mean in policy terms? 

If anxiety over the PRC’s displeasure at parts of a strategy lies behind a failure to produce one, HM Government should relax.

Under the first, the UK is to defend itself against interference and espionage, while safeguarding academic freedom and research. HM Government will not be silent on crimes against humanity in Xinjiang (on another area of human rights, it is noticeable that the government has still not made any open statement about the treatment of Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily and a British citizen, and his arrest in Hong Kong since a very brief one in 2020).

Under the second pillar Cleverly mentioned a British presence in the Indo-Pacific and called on the PRC ‘to be equally open about the doctrine and intent behind its military expansion, because transparency is surely in everyone’s interests and secrecy can only increase the risk of tragic miscalculation.’

Leaving aside the likelihood of the CCP being amenable to this suggestion, what is the UK to do to help bring it about or to curtail the threat to international law and peace? In Cleverly’s speech, this section led on to a reference to Taiwan. But again, apart from a description of its importance, no hint was given over British policy towards Taiwan. How is the PRC to be discouraged from taking unilateral action?

This lack of concrete action continues in remarks on the third pillar. How are the British to ‘…push for a level playing field and fairer competition’ or keep ‘…the long arm of the Chinese Communist Party [from] reaching towards the central nervous system of our country’?

It would be unreasonable to expect the Foreign Secretary to set out a complete strategy in a 40 minute speech, but to expect some indication of the specific measures HM Government is and will take as part of its China strategy is surely fair.

Strategic ambiguity…is HM Government boxing clever?

A possible explanation for the lack of a China strategy might be a deliberate decision to maintain ‘strategic ambiguity’, a broader version of the so named American strategy on Taiwan. Thus, without antagonising Beijing, the UK is nevertheless quietly going about the business of protecting itself from CCP threats, ‘de-risking’, countering where necessary, and aligning with the like-minded.

Certainly, HM Government has moved far from the Osborne doctrine of the ‘Golden Era’. The last few years have seen not only a marked change of attitude and awareness of the nature of the CCP, but also the beginnings of a systematic attempt to protect British national security, economic prosperity, values and data. To list a few recent measures:

  • The Joint State Threat Assessment Team was established in 2017. A cross-departmental organisation located inside the Security Service, it provides analysis on hybrid state threats to UK interests;
  • The Telecommunications Act banned Huawei from Britain’s 5G infrastructure; Huawei equipment is to be removed from all 5G systems by the end of 2027;
  • The National Security Investment Act (NSIA) sets out to protect UK technology by preventing the acquisition of companies in 17 areas;
  • The Research Collaboration Advice Team advises research institutions and universities on the national security risks linked to international research;
  • A Defending Democracy Taskforce aims to protect the UK’s democratic institutions at all levels from foreign interference; and 
  • The National Protective Security Authority was set up in March to help businesses and organisations defend against national security threats, both physical and to personnel. 

Two further bills are currently going through Parliament:

  • The National Security Bill, according to the IRR, aims to create a difficult ‘operating environment for states who seek to undermine UK interests, our political system and our institutions’. It will include a Foreign Interests Registration Scheme;
  • The Procurement Bill will define ‘trusted suppliers’. Its debarment list will include foreign (i.e. mostly Chinese) companies whose technology and presence could undermine national security.

Among other things, HM Government is also looking at supply chain dependencies. 

There is more to be done, not least revamping the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, to give it teeth and at the minimum to ensure that former ministers, politicians and top civil servants, many of whom are still influential with the government, declare their pecuniary interests derived from Chinese companies and organisations. Currently, a number of advisory/lobbying companies receive money from Huawei, Hikvision and other Chinese companies, which are working to promote the CCP’s long-term geopolitical interests.

As important as setting down legislation and regulation is the question of implementation – and, if necessary, imposing sanctions on those who infringe upon British interests. For example, is HM Government monitoring the progress of telecommunications companies’ disengagement from Huawei, so that the 2027 target is reached? It is also doubtful whether the NSIA captures start-ups in new technologies, which by nature are often below the radar (although the government has set up a fund, which should reduce reliance on Chinese investment).

…or is the government anxious not to be hit?

Cleverly and Sunak are right not to call the PRC a threat: little is to be gained from name calling. Clear guidance and actions are what count. There are four reasons why a China strategy is important:

  • The PRC is an issue affecting almost all government departments, which sometimes have conflicting priorities (the debate over Huawei and 5G showed the differences between the ‘economic’ and the ‘security’ ministries). A lack of clear direction delays important decisions, and allows those with vested interests to exploit a lack of clarity;
  • Business, academia (especially those involved in science and technology collaboration), and civil society need to be clear on the areas and Chinese organisations where cooperation is acceptable;
  • The UK can hardly aspire to be global leader if its allies and friends do not know where it hopes to lead them on the PRC; and,
  • The CCP will be less inclined and less able to bully, if it sees a clear strategy. A salient example would be deterring an invasion of Taiwan by letting the CCP know – now – that invasion or blockade would be met by sanctions.

If anxiety over the PRC’s displeasure at parts of a strategy lies behind a failure to produce one, HM Government should relax. As has been previously argued by the author, threats from the CCP to trade, investment, services, tourism, students and cooperation on climate change are greatly exaggerated. A similar conclusion was reached in a study on the outcome of CCP bullying of Australia.

Advancing British interests and resisting CCP threats also reinforce the need to agree a clear strategy with like-minded countries, in the words of Sunak and Cleverly, to align. Some policies under the strategy are likely to be difficult. For example, it is certainly not in the interests of free and open countries that the PRC be allowed to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), unless it fully accepts the conditions of the organisation. A repetition of what happened over accession to the World Trade Organisation, where promises made were not kept, must be avoided. All countries have a veto on new members for the CPTPP, which no country would wish to exercise alone. Is there a HM Government strategy for dealing with such questions? It needs to be agreed well in advance of their being posed.


‘If you are looking for British foreign policy by soundbite, you will be disappointed,’ said Cleverly to his Mansion House audience. No, people were not looking for policy by soundbite, but for a strategy. And, yes, so far – on that score – they remain to be satisfied.

Charles Parton is an 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.

Embedded image credit: Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street (CC BY 2.0 cropped)

Join our mailing list!

Stay informed about the latest articles from Britain’s World

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *