August 29, 2022: British politics is caught in an existential crisis this uneasy summer. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have locked horns in a fierce contest to become the new British prime minister. But instead of brainstorming how to fix the UK’s economic crisis, if elected, the two Conservative Party rivals are tripping over each other trying to portray themselves as harsher critics of China.
Beijing is more than 8,000 km away from London. For a country struggling to handle its own historic cost-of-living crisis, the battle for the prime minister’s chair should focus on the burning issues at home, not on drumming up ill-conceived hatred of China.
Britain is in turmoil on multiple fronts. Inflation could go through the roof in the coming months and the cost of living worsen. The Bank of England predicts the economy could spiral into a recession in the next year.
Then, of course, there is the political chaos unprecedented in recent British history. This summer witnessed about 60 members of the government resign en masse over Boris Johnson’s handling of multiple scandals, culminating in his own resignation as PM.
Truss and Sunak’s election pitches to fix the economy haven’t been received warmly at home. Truss vowed tax cuts, if elected, to arrest the economic slide, while Sunak floated a plan of targeted support for vulnerable households. Both their positions have failed to draw unanimous praise from Britons, who are expecting more convincing rescue efforts.
A convenient distraction
As the Conservatives rack their brains over who they should elect as their next party leader and PM, the last thing Britain should focus on is a foreign policy issue. Yet, it’s the “China obsession” that has been the centerpiece of Truss and Sunak’s rival pitches to become Johnson’s successor. Over the past few weeks, both have feverishly sought to demonize Beijing, fueling Sinophobia and projecting themselves as saviors of a democratic Britain under threat.
Their anti-China grandstanding comes without any basis but seems to have partially served the purpose of diverting the British public’s attention from domestic woes. Buoyed by escalatory remarks from Truss and Sunak, the Western media has been dedicating headlines to the “China obsession” instead of the economic and political quagmire at home.
Chest-thumping on China
Let’s first look at Sunak’s chest-thumping on China. The former chancellor, once a key member of Johnson’s cabinet, has labeled Beijing “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”.
Sunak claims if he is PM, he will take the lead in building an international alliance to combat alleged cybersecurity and industrial spying threats from China. He has also threatened to close all 30 Confucius Institutes in Britain, further stoking hatred toward China’s program to promote its culture abroad, the same thing that the British Council does in other countries.
Truss has been equally belligerent. The foreign secretary has vowed to pull the plug on Chinese-owned technology firms operating in the UK such as TikTok if she becomes PM. She has also said it is a matter of concern that Britain is becoming strategically dependent on China.
Impact on bilateral relations
Both Truss and Sunak are well aware that going ballistic against China will damage the economic relations between Beijing and London. It’s the last thing an already battered British economy needs.
After all, China was the UK’s third largest trading partner in the period from April 2021 to March 2022, accounting for 6.9 percent of total British trade. In 2021, China was Britain’s biggest import partner and sixth largest export partner for goods.
As things stand, Truss holds a clear edge over Sunak in the PM’s race, according to opinion polls and trends. On September 5, the world will know who the Conservative members want as their new party chief and prime minister.
The Truss-Sunak rhetoric is a continuation of London’s steady freezing of relations with Beijing in recent times. Outgoing PM Johnson was no different, playing the China card about a week before his resignation. In a provocative statement on the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, he threatened that Britain wasn’t giving up on the city yet.
Beijing’s response has been measured, in contrast. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has said UK politicians can’t solve their own problems by frequently hyping the “China threat” and making other “irresponsible statements”.
A transatlantic obsession
Targeting China without provocation has been a typically transatlantic trend, with the U.S., Britain’s foreign policy ally, taking the lead. The West-fueled hatemongering was at its peak during Donald Trump’s presidency and Joe Biden’s White House hasn’t been hugely different. Washington’s tacit support for U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s tour of China’s Taiwan region is one such example.
The Anglo-American tendency to perpetually point fingers at China and then exploit the rivalry to serve multiple purposes at home has its roots in the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, when the British-led West waged two wars against the Qing Dynasty.
On an increasingly multipolar planet, if the West wants to set an example in leadership, it needs to shed its narrow, historical obsession with blaming China for all its miseries and set its own house in order first.