Hostile rhetoric has intensified in recent days over Beijing’s new national security law for Hong Kong. Britain’s decision to offer refuge to millions of people in the former colony was welcomed by China. And Chinese authorities have threatened “consequences” if Britain treats it as a “hostile country” and decides to remove Chinese tech giant Huawei from its critical telecommunications infrastructure amid growing unease at risk of security.
All of this points to a much tighter stance against China, with an increasing number of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party members examining Britain’s ties to China at length. Many say that Britain has been far too accommodating and naive in thinking that it could gain economic benefits from the relationship without political consequences.
“It is not a question of wanting to break ties with China. It’s that China itself is becoming a very unreliable and rather dangerous partner, “said lawmaker and former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith. He cited Beijing’s “rampage” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration – the treaty supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy when it went from British rule to Chinese rule – and the aggressive positions at sea. South China as concerns.
“It’s not a country that somehow manages to be a good decent partner at the moment. That is why we must review our relations with them, “he added. “Those who think that it is a question of separating trade from the government youÇª you cannot do that, it is naive. ”
Duncan Smith lobbied other conservative lawmakers to cut Huawei from Britain’s high-speed 5G network. Not only that: he says that all existing Huawei technologies in the UK telecommunications infrastructure must also be eliminated as soon as possible.
The company has been at the center of tensions between China and Britain as British officials examine how the latest U.S. sanctions – imposed on allegations of cyber espionage and aimed at cutting Huawei’s access to advanced chips manufactured with the American technology – will affect the British. telecommunications networks.
Johnson decided in January that Huawei could be deployed in future 5G networks as long as its market share is limited, but officials have since hinted that the move could be overturned in light of U.S. sanctions. A new policy is expected in the coming weeks.
Huawei says it is simply caught in the middle of a U.S.-China battle over trade and technology. He has always denied allegations that he could conduct cyber espionage or electronic sabotage at the request of the Chinese Communist Party.
“We have definitely been pushed into geopolitical competition,” Vice President Victor Zhang said on Wednesday. The US security risk charges are all politically motivated, he said.
Nigel Inkster, senior adviser at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and former director of operations and intelligence at the British MI6 intelligence service, said the problem with Huawei was not so much about immediate security threats. On the contrary, he said, the deepest concern lies in the geopolitical implications of China becoming the dominant player in the world in 5G technology.
“It is less about cyber espionage than it is general in design because, after all, it happens everywhere,” he said. “It was never something the UK lacked knowledge of. ”
Still, Inkster said it has been warning for years that Britain needs a more coherent strategy towards China that balances economic and security factors.
“There was a high degree of complacency” in the 2000s, he said. “There was always less in the golden era than what we saw. ”
Britain rolled out the red carpet for Xi’s 2015 state visit with golden cars and a lavish banquet at Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II. A cybersecurity cooperation agreement has been reached, as have billions of trade and investment projects – including investments by the Chinese state in a British nuclear power plant. Cameron spoke of his ambitions for Britain to become “China’s best partner in the West”.
Enthusiasm has since cooled considerably. The English city of Sheffield, which was promised a billion-pound deal with a Chinese manufacturing company in 2016, said the investment never materialized. Critics have called it a vanity project and a “cotton candy deal.”
Economic and political grunts about China erupted in sharp reprimands earlier this month when Beijing imposed new national security laws on Hong Kong. The Johnson government has accused China of a serious violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and announced that it would open a special path to citizenship for up to 3 million eligible Hong Kong residents.
This amounts to “blatant interference”, said Chinese Ambassador Liu Xiaoming. Liu also warned that a decision to get rid of Huawei could drive other Chinese investments into the UK and mocked Britain for succumbing to US pressure on the company.
Rana Mitter, an Oxford history professor specializing in China, said the security law – combined with wider resentment over the Chinese authorities’ treatment of information on the coronavirus – helped to set the stage for a storm of perfect distrust among British politicians and the public. .
Mitter added that Britain has gone from “accepting everything uncritically about China” to a confrontational approach in part because of a lack of understanding of how China works.
Some warned against escalating tensions. Philip Hammond, the former head of the British Treasury, warned that the weakening of ties to the world’s second largest economy was particularly reckless at a time when Britain is severing trade ties with Europe and seeking partners elsewhere. Hammond also said he was concerned about an “alarming” rise in anti-Chinese sentiment in his Conservative Party.
Duncan Smith rejected this, saying that concerns over the rise of China were multi-stakeholder and multinational. It is part of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a newly launched group of lawmakers from more than a dozen countries – from the United States to Australia to Japan – who want a coordinated international response to the Chinese challenge. .
“We have to recognize that this is not a problem that a country can face,” he said.
Kelvin Chan and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this story.