Sunak speaks well to warn against China

 (ES Composte)
(ES Composte)

RISHI SUNAK did not mince his words. China, said the Prime Minister, was the “biggest challenge of our age”. The giant power was increasingly “authoritarian” at home while being “assertive” abroad.

It helped that Sunak was speaking at a meeting to which China was not invited. Whether he would be so bold if Chinese representatives were present, is a different matter.

Even so, his words at the weekend’s G7 summit in Hiroshima were about as forthright as it’s possible to be in the guarded language of international diplomacy. He was not alone. Other leaders at the gathering chimed in. Make no mistake, the West regards Beijing as a real and growing danger.

The fact the leaders assembled across the sea from Taiwan, so clearly under military threat from “the Bully” as the Taiwanese refer to their huge neighbour, helped focus minds. Sunak and his co-leaders are under no illusion: Chinese aggression has to be curbed.

Another phrase was used as well, one to go alongside the vast array of weapons and troops at China’s disposal — “economic coercion”. Unlike the phalanxes of soldiers marching and the terrifying rockets wheeled out for displays of might on China’s national occasions, this is not so evident, not exhibited in one place at one time anyway.

It is, though, just as alarming. It’s China buying up the world’s natural resources and commodities, from minerals to foodstuffs. Everyday essential items that they could, one day, deny to the rest.

The hand, or rather the wallet, of China is everywhere, in real estate, finance, data, software, tech. How to counter it, how to resist its overtures, especially if it comes laden with bounty, is not easy.

While the West comes up with more safeguarding measures — another batch was unveiled at the G7 — they can be assured their electorates are right behind them. So much so, that it would seem where dealing with aggressive states such as China, and let us not forget Russia, are concerned, Sunak and co can got further, emboldened in the knowledge they have public support.

A research paper procured by Freshwater Strategy in collaboration with the Henry Jackson Society shows the British are highly risk-averse around forming close bonds with such nations and strongly support the imposition of tighter restrictions in sensitive areas.

“Public anxiety about ensuring there are strict protections are grounded in a real and growing trend. Whilst collaboration with Russia entities is minimal, partnerships with Chinese academics and companies have grown by 34.7% between 2018-2021 alone,” said Freshwater Strategy consultant Morgan James.

Freshwater’s public opinion polling found that 68% of UK voters believe the likes of China should not be allowed to participate in research on cyber security software. For DNA testing, a majority, 51%, felt the same.

It’s an election issue, something the main parties would be foolish to ignore. Among Liberal Democrats, 44% said they would definitely consider voting elsewhere if their party was seen to be soft on “high risk” nations. For Labour, 52% said the same of their party.

Among the Tories, 25% of voters said they would seriously consider switching their support. While lower than the other two, the Tory figure is significant. If applied, it could lose the Conservatives the next general election. Normally, foreign affairs do not feature so highly on voters’ lists of priorities — NHS, economy, law and order, education, housing, these all usually rank higher. Not anymore. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have brought home the dangers of ignoring foreign aggression and entering partnerships with such countries. For the first time in many people’s lives, they are witnessing the horror of a war in mainland Europe.

They don’t wish to see their Government kowtowing to regimes that do not treat their own populations properly and appear to harbour expansionist plans abroad. This hardening of attitude will not be lost on party strategists. They know if they want to win the next election, they must be seen to be tough.

The poll is in effect, the British public giving Sunak licence to follow his words on China with real action. Commercial tie-ups and proposed investments in areas potentially of benefit to China and other nations that follow similar paths, must now be in doubt. These findings could have an impact on firms like Hikvision, Huawei and BGI, already fighting human rights and data privacy concerns.

We may want their money, but we value our principles and our freedom more.

Chris Blackhurst is the author of Too Big To Jail: Inside HSBC, the Mexican drug cartels and the greatest banking scandal of the century (Macmillan)