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Rishi Sunak declares end to golden era of UK-China relations, criticized for not seeing Beijing as a ‘threat’

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(TibetanReview.net, Nov29’22) – British Prime Minister Mr Rishi Sunak has said Nov 28 that the so-called “golden era” of relations with China was over and vowed to “evolve” his country’s stance towards the country. He has said the UK now needed to replace wishful thinking with “robust pragmatism” towards competitors.

But while it is not clear what this new approach will actually amount to in practical terms, Mr Sunak’s critics see it as a big mistake to fail to see China as a “threat” given his view of the country only as a “systemic challenge”.

In his first foreign policy speech, made to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London, the PM has said the closer economic ties of the previous decade had been “naïve”.

However, he has warned against “Cold War rhetoric”, adding that China’s global significance could not be ignored.

His remarks came in the face of pressure from Tory backbenchers asking him to toughen the UK’s stance on China since he took over as Tory leader and UK prime minister last month, reported the bbc.com Nov 29.

Sunak’s speech came after protests in China over the weekend against the country’s strict Covid lockdown laws.

Police have made several arrests, and a BBC journalist was detained while covering a protest in Shanghai on Sunday (Nov 27). He was beaten and kicked by the police during his arrest, and held for several hours before being released, the report noted.

Referring to these developments, Sunak has said, “We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism.”

He has therefore added that the “golden era” of UK-China relations was “over”, along with the “naïve idea” that more trade with the West would lead to Chinese political reform.

Stressing, however, that “we cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs – to global economic stability or issues like climate change”, Sunak has added that the UK would work with allies including the US, Canada, Australia, and Japan to “manage this sharpening competition, including with diplomacy and engagement”.

“It means standing up to our competitors, not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism.”

Mr Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss was reportedly planning to re-categorise China as a “threat” to the UK as part of a review of the country’s foreign policy. Mr Sunak, however, prefers to see China as a “systemic challenge” and has said there would be more details of the review in the new year.

But for the prime minister’s critics, failing to describe Beijing as a “threat” is a big mistake, the report said.

In particular, Mr Sunak’s “robust pragmatism” line in the speech was criticised by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, one of a number of backbenchers pushing for a tougher line. He has said China had become a “clear and present threat to us and our allies”.

Reacting to a preview of the speech, he has written in the Daily Express, “I wonder if robust pragmatism now sounds more and more like appeasement.”

Also, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has called the speech “thin as gruel”, accusing the prime minister of “flip-flopping its rhetoric on China”.

The phrase “golden era” is associated with closer economic ties under former prime minister David Cameron – but relations between London and Beijing have since deteriorated.

The term was first employed after the conclusion of the Cold War and the completion of an agreement regarding Hong Kong’s future. At that time, a period known as the “Golden Era” of Sino-British relations began with multiple high-level state visits and bilateral trade and military agreements.

This roughly 20-year period came to an abrupt end during the 2019–2020 Hong Kong democracy protests and the imposition of a highly controversial national security law that quelled civil liberties and freedoms in the city, which was viewed in the UK as a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

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