LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared Monday that the U.K.’s “golden era” of ties with China was over in his first major speech on foreign policy, describing China’s growing authoritarianism as a “systemic challenge to our values and interests.”
But Sunak stopped short of calling China a threat, disappointing China hawks in his Conservative Party who had until recently expected him to class China as a “threat” to U.K. security as part of an update of the government’s foreign and defense policies.
In his speech to the annual Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London, Sunak said the U.K. would stand up to global competitors like China — “not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism” and by boosting its ties with like-minded global allies including the U.S., Canada, Australia and Japan.
“We recognize China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism,” he said.
Referring to Beijing’s handling of widespread protests across China against the country’s strict “zero COVID” strategy, Sunak said that “instead of listening to their people’s protests, the Chinese government has chosen to crack down further, including by assaulting a BBC journalist.”
In July, during a Conservative leadership race to pick a successor to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Sunak said China represented the “largest threat” to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity.
At the time, he pledged to close all Confucius Institutes, the partially Chinese government-funded organizations that promote Chinese culture and language at U.K. universities. He also said he would lead an international alliance against Chinese cyberthreats, and help British companies and universities counter Chinese spying.
Lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader and a vocal China critic, said Sunak’s “robust pragmatism” meant “anything you want it to mean” and amounted to “appeasement.” And David Lammy, the opposition Labour Party’s foreign affairs spokesman, described Sunak’s speech as “as thin as gruel.”
“All it shows is that once again the Conservative government is flip-flopping its rhetoric on China,” Lammy said.