Rishi Sunak dials down tensions with Beijing by ditching predecessor’s view of China as security ‘threat’

Rishi Sunak has sought to dial down tensions with China ahead of his first encounter with president Xi Jinping by stepping back from predecessor Liz Truss’s characterisation of Beijing as a “threat” to UK national security.

During her brief time at No 10, China hawk Truss indicated she would upgrade the Asian giant’s classificiation in the official Integrated Review (IR) of the UK’s security, defence and foreign policy priorities from a “systemic competitor” to a “threat” alongside Russia.

But speaking as the G20 summit opened in Indonesia, Mr Sunak stuck to the wording of the 2021 IR, which characterises China as “undoubtedly the biggest state-based threat to our economic security” but stops short of naming it a threat to national security.

His comments appeared to echo the stance of Joe Biden in his first in-person talks as US president with his Chinese counterpart, in which both he and Mr Xi attempted to position the relationship between their two superpowers as one of competition, not conflict.

Mr Sunak will join President Xi around the conference table in Bali but is not scheduled to hold one-on-one talks, though he last night said he would welcome the chance to speak with him – in stark contrast to his refusal to enter into dialogue with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Speaking to reporters travelling with him to the Indonesian beach resort, the prime minister at one point used the phrase “systemic threat” to describe China, but swiftly corrected himself to “systemic challenge” and used that terminology for the remainder of his comments.

And he stressed the need for “dialogue” with Beijing on global issues like climate change, recovery from Covid and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“My view is that China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests and it represents the biggest state-based threat to our economic security,” said Mr Sunak. “I think that view, by the way, is highly aligned with our allies.”

He said it was important for the UK to take action to defend itself against China’s economic influence, citing the National Security Investment Act, which gives the government a greater ability to block Chinese takeovers of businesses of national significance.

But he added: “I also think that China is an indisputable fact of the global economy and we’re not going to be able to resolve shared global challenges like climate change, or public health, or indeed actually dealing with Russia and Ukraine, without having a dialogue with them.”

The apparent bid to de-escalate tensions came as Mr Biden took a conciliatory tone in his eve-of-summit meeting with Mr Xi in a luxury Bali hotel.

After talks stretching more than three hours, Mr Biden said there need not be a “new Cold War” with China and said he did not believe that Beijing had imminent plans to invade Taiwan.

For his part Mr Xi – travelling abroad for only the second time since the start of the Covid crisis – said that China-US relations “should not be a zero-sum game in which you rise and I fall”.

Instead, he said: “The wide Earth is fully capable of accommodating the development and common prosperity of China and the United States.”

Mr Xi gave no ground on Taiwan, warning Mr Biden that it was “the first red line in US-China relations that cannot be crossed”.

His comments followed tensions surrounding a visit to Taiwan by House speaker Nancy Pelosi in August, which fuelled fears of confrontation over the island, which is self-ruled and enjoys its own close trade relations with the US but is claimed by China.

But, in a welcome diplomatic breakthrough for the West, Mr Xi took a notably tougher stance on Russia, joining Mr Biden in condemning Moscow’s nuclear threats against Ukraine.

Like Ms Truss, Mr Sunak is committed to a refresh of the Integrated Review, and he said that issues relating to China would be considered as part of this.

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