Will Sunak continue with his hawkish stance on China?
WITH the abrupt entry of Rishi Sunak into 10 Downing Street as new British Premier, the Sino-UK relations are likely to hit a new low.
In his first telephone call with US President Biden, after taking charge of his new assignment, Rishi Sunak pledged to work closely with the US in the Indo-Pacific region to counter “China’s malign influence.”
This reflects two important points; one, the China-threat is now the most saleable item in the West to distract the attention of the voters from fledging economies, and two, a deep bigotry and myopic view has enveloped the thinking of the Western leadership on China.
It also tells that we should brace for a further high-voltage anti-China hype from the new British Prime Minister in the coming days.
When Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss were fighting a duel to win the top slot of the Conservative Party, they were indulged in a frantic competition of China-bashing to prove themselves as a bigger China hawk to lure the Tories.
“For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions.
I will change this on Day 1 as Prime Minister,” is how Sunak bragged while campaigning for the leadership of the Conservative Party leadership just two months ago.
In a series of tweets posted on 25 July , as a part of highly vitriolic campaign against Beijing, Mr Sunak appeared highly unreasonable by declaring that Britain’s 30 Confucius Institutes, most of which are Chinese government-run facilities located on British university campuses, would be shuttered under his government’s new China policies.
“Almost all UK government spending on Mandarin language teaching at school is channelled through university-based Confucius Institutes, thereby promoting Chinese soft power,” Mr Sunak said at that time.
But he has never hesitated in bluntly expressing his anti-China sentiments. He considers the leadership of the Communist Party and China as “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”.
He has many times divulged his plan to cobble together an “international alliance of free nations to tackle Chinese cyber threats” and empower Britain’s security agencies to “counter Chinese industrial espionage.”
Indubitably, Rishi Sunak belongs to that cohort of the Western leaders who have been deeply immersed in the anti-China mindset — a reminiscent of the Cold War era when the Western media’s decades of incessantly one-sided propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union nurtured a generation of politicians with awfully biased perception about communism and the Soviet leadership.
Similar phenomenon is happening again in the West, but this time the target is China. The West always need an actual or pseudo-enemy to permanently manoeuvre the global power structure.
With Sunak in Downing Street, it is being expected that the Sino-UK relation will be further chilled in the coming days.
A group of analysts is of the view that Sunak’s rhetoric during the leadership election race should not be taken seriously because that was part of his tactics to win elections and, after taking charge of the office and facing the bitter realities of global politics, it would not be possible for him to convert his talk into action against China.
Another argument is that, crippled by deep-rooted domestic economic woes and on-going infighting within the Conservative Party, and growing public approval ratings for the Labour Party, Rishi Sunak would desist from restarting his anti-China rhetoric.
A third argument is that, being a pragmatic financial manager, China is Sunak can’t ignore the fact that China is now the largest source of imports for the UK worth 63.6 billion pounds ($611 billion) or 13.3 percent of all goods imports, and he will desist from antagonize Beijing because of such inordinate dependence on trade with China.
These arguments are too optimistic. It is expected that, though himself not a populist leader, but Sunak would try to copy other populist leaders like Trump who always created the China hype to divert the attention from his poor performance, to refuel anti-China rhetoric to muffle the impact of looming cost-of-living crisis in the UK that has already engulfed Liz Truss’s premiership within 45 days.
Rishi Sunak does not have any new formula or magic wand that would overnight resolve Britain’s economic problems.
Once the dust settles and Sunak enters into the third and fourth week of his premiership, the anxiety over the debilitating economy will again start inciting the British public and then Sunak would be needing a “detractor” to offset the mounting pressure.
“China threat” provides an ideal hinge for Sunak to deflect the pressure from domestic politics. Sunak does not have a personal vote bank neither in the Conservative Party nor among the general voters – as was evident by his emphatic defeat against Liz Truss in the Tory Party leadership race.
He is not a traditional politician with a strong base among the voters, so he needs something different to create a niche for himself and consolidate his position within Conservative Party to have a long stint at the helm.
The manner in which he was grilled on his first day in Parliament as British Prime Minister is a clear indication of tough days for him. He would certainly try to open a new front in the foreign policy to find some solace.
He would certainly adopt more aggressive tone against China with an intent to project himself as a strong-nosed leader and to dilute the media attention on his flawed economic policies that failed to pre-empt the cost-of-living crisis — the British people can’t forget that he was the chief architect of the economic policies as Chancellor of Exchequer during the Boris Johnson regime.
Sunak has mounting challenges at home: The prevailing political upheaval, a cost-of-living crisis driven, inflation with skyrocketing energy prices, and supply chain issues.
His main attention will certainly be on repairing the debilitating economy, taming the financial markets and — more than anything else — restoring public trust in the Conservative Party.
He needs to tread carefully in the domain of foreign policy and any new tussle with Beijing will complicate matters for him.
—The writer is political analyst, based in Karachi.