On 10 September 2021, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee published its report ‘The UK and China’s security and trade relationship: A strategic void’. The committee set out to examine the security and trade relationship between the UK and China over the past decade. The report made recommendations for the future approach to that relationship The government responded to the report on 23 November 2021, and to correspondence from the committee on 9 February 2022.

The chair of the committee, Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Conservative), will lead a debate on the report in the House of Lords on 20 October 2022.

1. The committee’s report: A complex relationship?

The committee characterised the UK-China relationship as “complex” and one that has encompassed periods of both cooperation and confrontation. Summarising the relationship over the past decade, the committee said it started with the ‘golden era’ of the coalition and Cameron governments, with a focus on economic relations, but deteriorated in the second half, with increased concern about security challenges.

In addition, the committee concluded tensions had further increased since 2020 as a result of the Hong Kong National Security Law, the decision to remove all Huawei equipment from the UK’s 5G network by the end of 2027, and the UK’s and its allies’ response to human rights abuses and allegations of genocide in China’s Xinjiang province, which included sanctions on Chinese officials.

1.1 What issues were raised by the committee?

The committee stated that China would remain a key global economic power and an important trading partner for the UK. It argued that maintaining productive economic relations with China would have significant advantages for the UK and that cooperation on wider challenges, such as climate change and public health, was important.

However, the committee also argued there were “divergences” on some “critical matters”. It identified a series of trade and security challenges posed by China, including:

  • maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region: Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, the East China Sea, the South China Sea
  • formal alliances: promotion of the Five Powers Defence Arrangements between the UK, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore; and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US
  • cybersecurity and technology: China’s ability to gain access to “critical and sensitive information through cyber-espionage” and cyber-attacks
  • “democratic regression” in Southeast Asia: including in Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar and Cambodia
  • Chinese policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang
  • security challenges related to global health and climate change: including “increased food and water insecurity, forced migration and displacement”

The committee was critical of the UK government’s approach to China. It argued the UK had a policy of “deliberate constructive ambiguity” towards the country. It found that the government’s 2021 integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy provided “no detail” on its plans for “balancing its ambition for increased economic engagement with China and the need to protect the UK’s wider interests and values”. The committee argued that on such a “crucial issue” the UK needed “much more clarity that it has had hitherto”. It concluded that in seeking a balance between the two, the UK had to “acknowledge that trade is, in the long run, itself dependent on security”.

1.2 What did the committee recommend?

The committee’s central recommendation was for the UK government to publish a “clear China strategy which identifies key objectives and relative priorities”. The committee argued that engaging with a country with “such a different political system” needed a strategic and coordinated approach. The committee identified key themes on which the strategy should focus. These included:

  • Taiwan: the committee believed the possibility of conflict over Taiwan was the most “dangerous risk that faces the UK in terms of its relationship with China”. It argued managing this risk should be the government’s top strategic priority. The committee said the UK should make maximum use of its diplomatic and soft power in the region.
  • Existing international rules-based system: the committee heard evidence that China was dissatisfied with the current system and “sought one that was more accommodating to its own requirements”, particularly in areas that were not well regulated, such as in the polar regions and cyberspace. The committee argued that countering China’s efforts should be the UK government’s second priority. The committee recommended the government play a leading role in strengthening international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation.
  • Future international order: the committee argued that “crucial” to success in framing the future intergovernmental system would be “assembling a group of nations with sufficient aggregate political, economic and scientific power” to counter that of China and to “successfully influence” uncommitted nations. The committee stated that achieving long-term success in this objective might require the government to “accommodate some uncomfortable bedfellows” in the short term.
  • Resilience: the committee asserted that China would probably retaliate against any policy that conflicted with its own interests. Therefore, for the UK to “maintain its freedom of action”, it needed sufficient resilience in its infrastructure, economy and supply chains.
  • Diplomacy: the committee stated the UK should continue to seek to trade with China and cooperate on issues such as climate change and global health. However, it argued this should not be at the expense of the UK’s other strategic priorities or at the cost of upholding its values on issues such as human rights. The committee argued this would require careful diplomacy. However, evidence given to the committee suggested the necessary “understanding of China” was “neither as deep nor as widespread” as it needed to be, particularly across government.

The committee concluded:

The issue of how the government intends to balance economic relations trade concerns with upholding values such as human rights and labour protection should be front and centre of this strategy.

The committee also said that more generally the government should incorporate an “atrocity prevention lens” in its overall approach to trade. It called on the government to outline how it would strengthen its current tools, including the effective use of sanctions and other consequences, when it has evidence that an atrocity has occurred.

2. How has the government responded to the report’s recommendations?

2.1 Government response to the committee report

The government responded to the committee’s report in November 2021. It argued the 2021 integrated review set out the “core elements” of the UK’s strategy towards China. The government stated the review recognised the “profound impact” of China’s approach worldwide and emphasised the country’s “increasing international assertiveness and scale.” The government said the review made clear the UK would continue to “defend our values and interests”, and it provided examples where it said they had acted. For instance, the UK’s response to China’s actions in Hong Kong and to human rights violations in Xinjiang.

The government said it was clear the UK would continue to seek to cooperate and engage with China in areas of shared interest and in tackling international challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity and global health. However, it stated that while it was in the UK’s interests to continue to trade with China, it was “important [to] avoid strategic dependency” on the country. The government said the national security council (NSC) provided a “clear direction” for the government’s China policy. It highlighted that the council was supported by the work of the integrated review implementation group on China.

2.2 Correspondence between the committee and the government

In January 2022, the chair of the committee, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, wrote to the government to follow up on various matters contained in its response. Baroness Anelay said she was “disappointed” the government had not confirmed whether it would publish a strategy on China. She reiterated the committee’s view that the government’s position on China was ambiguous. In particular, she said it was unclear how the government intended to balance human rights issues with its economic relationship with China. Baroness Anelay said that uncertainty was “damaging to businesses and detrimental to our partnerships and alliances in the region”.

The then minister for Asia at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Amanda Milling, responded for the government on 9 February 2022. Ms Milling reiterated the government would continue to uphold the UK’s values and protect national security while “promoting a positive and reliable economic relationship” with China and engaging on global issues. She did not commit to publishing a specific China strategy. On the issue of uncertainty for UK businesses, she said that the government would continue its “extensive” programme of engagement with business to ensure its policy was “well understood”.

Also addressing the human rights situation in Xinjiang in the letter, Ms Milling said the government would continue to lead international efforts to hold China to account for its actions. She added that the UK’s concerns had led to its decision not to send government representation to the winter Olympics in China in February 2022. The letter also noted that the UK government had imposed sanctions, applied export controls and imposed penalties under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The government said it was clear that “more trade will not come at the expense of human rights”.

3. Recent developments

On 14 July 2022, during a debate in the House of Lords on the issue of UK-China relations, Lord Sharpe of Epsom addressed the issue of a published UK strategy. Lord Sharpe said the UK’s government’s 2021 integrated review had set out the government’s “commitment to respond to the systemic challenge” posed by China. He confirmed that the strategic approach to China was led by the NSC. He stated that it remained the case that the government did not “publish NSC strategies on China or other issues”. He stressed that the government’s approach to China was coordinated across government.

The integrated review had established the UK’s intention to balance its pursuit of a “positive” trading relationship with China and cooperation on global issues, with the need to protect the UK’s national security and its values. This approach was mirrored in the strategic concept document adopted at the NATO heads of government summit in June 2022, which was attended by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The strategic concept set out NATO’s position on the challenges posed by China:

The PRC [People’s Republic of China] employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up. The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target allies and harm alliance security. The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains.

NATO also raised concerns about the “deepening strategic” relationship between China and Russia, and their “mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order”.

The document said that NATO would remain “open to constructive engagement” with China, and look “to build reciprocal transparency”. However, to address the “systematic challenges” posed by China, NATO would “boost” its shared awareness, “enhance our resilience and preparedness”, and “protect against the PRC’s coercive tactics and efforts to divide the alliance”.

In an “unprecedented joint address”, the heads of the UK Security Service (MI5) and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also warned of the growing threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party. Speaking to an audience of business and academic leaders on 6 July 2022, Director General of MI5 Ken McCallum said the party posed the most “game-changing challenge we face”. He said the party was involved in attempts to illegally procure technology, artificial intelligence, advanced research and product development through theft, espionage and cyber-attacks. Mr McCallum said MI5 had “doubled our previously constrained” effort again Chinese “activity of concern”. He said MI5 was running seven times as many investigations into Chinese threats compared with 2018.

FBI Director Christopher Wray concurred with Mr McCallum’s analysis. He stated China presented the “biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security”. Mr Wray told the audience that China posed a serious threat to western businesses and that the country was “set on stealing your technology”.

Further analysis on the integrated review and China, and on UK concerns over economic and security challenges posed by China, can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘China: Security challenges to the UK’ (8 July 2022).

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