The Election Debate on…China

As we enter an increasingly multipolar world, the rise of China has reshaped and redefined global politics. But the UK’s approach to China has struggled to keep apace or to have any real degree of consistency, swinging from former Prime Minister Lord Cameron’s “golden era” of relations to the profound hawkishness of Liz Truss’ short premiership, to an approach that now sees China as an “epoch-defining challenge”. What exactly this term means and what it means for how the UK engages with China remains fairly unclear. In order to address the proliferating security concerns facing the UK and its allies from Beijing then, a more sophisticated and consistent strategy towards China is required from the next UK administration.

Looking at both Labour and the Conservatives approaches, however, the two parties’ are similarly vague in their approaches and, in turn, it is almost impossible to discern how they might differentiate themselves on China. During their time in office, the Conservatives have sought to “protect, align (with allies) and engage” on China, while Labour pledges to “compete, challenge and co-operate” with China. Three different words but which lead to a broadly similar concept – shoring up the UK’s resilience against national security threats posed by Beijing, while also working with China where the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.

The difficulty for both parties is in establishing where the line should be drawn between these competing ambitions. Should the UK follow the United States in protecting itself against Chinese-led supply chains when it comes to critical materials for the net-zero transition (e.g. solar panels, EVs, etc)? Or should it seize the opportunity to achieve climate goals through importing cheaper or more readily available components from China? Can it, and should it, try and do both? The challenge with both parties’ approaches is it is left fundamentally unclear which of their three buzzwords will trump the others and when. It leaves both parties cherry-picking when and how to engage with China, with no clear sense of an overarching plan or long-term thinking.

Labour will no doubt hope that its plans for a full audit of UK-China relations in its first 100-days in office will provide some of the answers. Highlighting the preeminence of the China challenge to the UK and its infrastructure and security, the audit will aim to identify areas of particular UK vulnerability to Chinese influence, and provide some clarity on the UK’s long-term approach. But this project will only be different from existing exercises if it is accompanied by a very clear set of priorities and principles as well as practical actions.

The one major area of potential divergence from the current government line that will be worth looking out for though is on human rights. While Shadow Foreign Secretary has made clear that his plans for a ‘progressive realist’ approach to foreign policy will involve engagement with powers whose values don’t always align with our own, a Labour government will be substantially more values-led in its engagement with China. Human rights and equality concerns will therefore be raised more prominently alongside national security and democratic interference concerns (as laid out by Shadow Indo-Pacific Minister Catherine West). Already, Labour has gone a step further than the Conservatives when it comes to China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, with Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy pledging last year to declare it a “genocide”, while the Conservative description of events stopped short of using the label. Facing a China that is increasingly assertive over the freedoms of territories including Hong Kong and Taiwan – most recently cautioning hardcore independence ‘separatists’ in Taiwan with imprisonment and even the death penalty – implementing a constructive values-led relationship could prove particularly challenging if Labour does win the election.

What is not clear, however, is how external factors will force the UK’s hand when it comes to relations with Beijing. With the United States firmly focused on curbing the rise of China, the next UK government will face growing pressure from one of its largest allies to ‘fall in line’ and toughen its own stance on China. This will be a particularly profound pressure if President Trump wins office, but holds true still if President Biden wins, given his growing hawkishness on China. The UK will also likely find itself caught between appeasing a hard-line United States and the traditionally more dove-ish Europe. With ‘security’ firmly placed at the core of China’s economic approach – undoubtedly in preparation for a potential deepening of its geopolitical rivalry with the West – the next UK administration will not only be looking at carving out policy based on its domestic interests, but based on our partners actions too. 

The UK’s future relationship with Europe also looks set to determine facets of the UK’s approach to Beijing. Increased cooperation with our European partners in and around the Indo-Pacific region could help the UK carve out a clearer role for itself in relation to China. Notably, this is a potential policy avenue for both Labour and the Conservatives, albeit stemming from different cores; UK-European ties are expected to develop under a Labour government, but the Conservatives have the existing momentum in the region due to their multi-year investment in the UK’s ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. 

A final variable which could influence future China policymaking lies in the total seat share of the Conservative party specifically, following next week’s general election. A Conservative party decimation at the polls – which is not out of the question at the moment – would inevitably forge the way for a leadership vacuum, and could ultimately leave the Conservative party in the hands of a China hawk. In the circumstance in which a China hawk emerges as an opposition leader – conjure the rhetoric of ex-PM Liz Truss or Iain Duncan-Smith – the UK’s approach to China may face an overton-window-based shift, with the governing administration forced to navigate a vocally anti-China opposition bench. 

While of course, much of this analysis is conjecture and speculation, it goes to show the extent to which the UK’s future China policy remains uncertain. It goes without saying that for a number of the biggest challenges that the UK and its allies face, China is either part of the problem or the solution, or both. But this election campaign has so far given the public very little reassurance that a clear and consistent China strategy will emerge post-election. It is time to seek much-needed clarity on the UK’s stance on China, so as to position ourselves in the best stead that we can as we head into a decade of heightened China-Western competition.

View BFPG’s full Election Watch series here

Eliza Keogh

Eliza Keogh is BFPG's Researcher and Programmes Manager