UK defends approach on China after kow-towing accusations

Jitendra JOSHI
·3-min read
Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (pictured February 2021) said a "calibrated approach" was required towards China after the government signalled a strategic UK shift post-Brexit towards the Asia-Pacific region

Britain on Wednesday defended the need for critical engagement with China on climate change and trade, after drawing criticism for soft-pedalling troublesome issues with the world's second economy in a new global strategy paper.

In a virtual address to the Aspen Security Forum in the US, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said a "calibrated approach" was required towards China after the government signalled a strategic UK shift post-Brexit towards the Asia-Pacific region.

"China is here to stay. We don't believe that we're harking back to an old Cold War mentality or paradigm. There are positives, and we ought to look for the areas of constructive engagement, obviously business and trade," he said.

Previewing Britain's hosting of the UN COP 26 summit in November, Raab added that "we're not going to shift the dial on climate change unless we can engage in some kind of cooperation with China".

"At the same time, we're absolutely resolute about standing up robustly and rigorously where British interests are affected, whether it's intellectual property or critical national infrastructure."

Raab added that Britain had also shown it was "standing up for our values" over Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the right to free navigation in the South China Sea, where he said Beijing was guilty of a "wholesale assault" on international law.

Britain's "Integrated Review" paper unveiled on Tuesday identified the Indo-Pacific region -- including Asian powers such as India, Japan and South Korea, as well as emerging economies like Indonesia and Vietnam -- as "critical" to Britain.

The UK has already applied for partner status at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to make his first post-Brexit visit to India in April.

The review noted that China's power and international assertiveness would likely be the most significant geopolitical factor of the decade, calling Beijing a "systemic competitor".

- 'Grasping naivety' -

The government is under pressure in its own Conservative ranks to adopt a tougher line on China, notably over what hawks -- and the United States -- argue is the "genocide" of ethnic Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, and its crackdown on democrats in the former UK colony of Hong Kong.

Dominic Cummings, a former top aide to Johnson, said Wednesday that both China and Russia had pursued "extremely aggressive operations against this country to acquire British knowledge both legally and illegally".

However, former prime minister David Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne "did not take it deadly seriously, and in all sorts of ways they left the country open and vulnerable", Cummings told MPs at a hearing.

Intelligence and Security committee chairman Julian Lewis, a Conservative, criticised Johnson for displaying "the grasping naivety of the Cameron-Osborne years" in his government's strategy on China.

The Daily Mail newspaper ran a double-page spread headlined "Britain kowtows to China".

But Osborne, who has pursued a lucrative career in finance since leaving the government, said the best approach was to "co-opt China rather than confront China".

"I think Boris Johnson should be congratulated for seeing off the hotheads who want to launch some new Cold War with China," he told MPs.

Raab himself came under criticism late Tuesday after a video was leaked to the HuffPost news site showing him saying an over-emphasis on human rights would mean "we're not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future".

A foreign ministry spokesperson said the remarks had been "deliberately and selectively clipped", and that Raab was explaining the need for a holistic approach in trade and human rights.