Where Next on UK-China Engagement?

The UK’s Evolving Priorities, Geopolitical Developments and China’s New Strategic Framework

A major new report from the British Foreign Policy Group, co-authored by the BFPG’s Director Sophia Gaston and Prof. Rana Mitter of Oxford University, warns the UK still has a long way to go before it can effectively and constructively engage with China, and secure the nation against the challenges China poses now and into the future.

The report recognises the UK Government has made important progress in implementing new safeguards and in building a more robust strategy on human rights and global norms. But it argues the UK’s ‘reset’ on China remains a work in progress, and there is still much to be done to strengthen the UK’s position so we can pursue China engagement from a more confident position. Significant, structural change to policy-making processes will be required to effectively balance security and openness, as pursuing a ‘balanced’ relationship will involve regular points of tension. We must build systems capable of accommodating these in a principled and consistent fashion.

In light of the ongoing scrutiny that will be required towards different points of engagement, the report proposes a “triad” model for making decisions about actions towards China – categorising choices around the nature, sphere and stakes of such decisions, to ensure the Government can consider their implications in the round.

10 key arguments in the report:

1. The UK must deepen and enhance institutional knowledge about China.
2. Economic engagement continues to present opportunities, but we must be realistic about the nature of our negotiating position.
3. China’s attendance at COP is a key measure of success for the UK, but we must accept it realises its scope of leverage on climate action.
4. We must pursue a robust line on human rights with China, and ensure we uphold these standards at home and in our other partnerships.
5. Even when the UK experiences geopolitical disputes or areas of tension with China, they must not be conflated with the Chinese people.
6. The UK Government must ensure that the decision to temporarily reduce our foreign aid spending does not create a vacuum for China to seize upon.
7. We must strengthen the process of securing our critical national infrastructure, and future-proof our definition of what will become valuable to us.
8. Britain must lean into its special capabilities in designing the governance frameworks of the future, which will address many areas of growing importance to China.
9. While the UK-China bilateral relationship will remain unique, we must also build and maintain the foundations of a collective approach to China amongst liberal allies.
10. China provides a striking example of the urgent need to integrate our domestic and international resilience agendas.




Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.