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Frosty UK-China relations are here to stay


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Good morning. Rishi Sunak was due to hold talks with China’s president Xi Jinping at the G20 in Bali later today, but the schedule was disrupted by an emergency meeting which was called after a missile strike in Poland yesterday.

In many ways, the cancellation sums up Sunak’s challenge in China policy: he wants to take the UK back to an earlier, less confrontational era of UK-China relations. But events and forces outside his control mean that he is going to struggle. Some more thoughts on that below.


Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com.


A friend in Xi?

Sunak’s planned meeting with Xi (the first arranged by a UK prime minister since February 2018) is in many ways unsurprising. This month, Xi has met with Olaf Scholz in Beijing, and with Emmanuel Macron at the G20. Most importantly, he has already had a face-to-face meeting with his US counterpart, Joe Biden. After all, no one could accuse Biden of being a China dove or anything like it.

(On the topic of Scholz and Macron: two pieces that are very much worth reading: this Big Read on Sino-German relations by Guy Chazan and Yuan Yang, while Cristina Gallardo and Clea Caulcutt explore the Sunak-Macron “bromance” over at Politico.)

But the prospect of a Sunak-Xi meeting has an added piquancy in British politics because Sunak is a rare China dove in a Conservative party that has moved sharply towards Sinoscepticism in recent years. As Seb Payne explains, Sunak is moving UK foreign policy away from the ideologically driven/values-based (delete as preferred) approach of the Johnson-Truss era and towards one based around the UK’s (real or perceived) economic interest.

Sunak has also rowed back from officially relabelling China as a “threat” in an upcoming review of the UK’s defence, security and foreign policy, as his predecessor had planned to do, and instead says he views the country as a “systemic challenge”.

That Biden — a Sinosceptic president of a Sinosceptic party, in a country where essentially every senior politician has moved in a sharply Sinosceptic direction — has met with Xi drains some of the political difficulty from the meeting for Sunak.

Westminster’s China hawks haven’t forgotten that Sunak isn’t really one of them, but equally, his mere act of planning to meet another leader isn’t something to fear, not when a hawkish US president is also holding such talks. The presence of not only Tom Tugendhat around the cabinet table, but also Will Tanner, Sunak’s new deputy chief of staff, is enough to reassure most Conservative China hawks that Sunak’s new language is not a concern.

But for all Sunak has managed to reassure the bulk of his Sinosceptic party that his intentions aren’t cause for alarm just yet, he faces sharp limitations politically on his ability to reset UK-China relations. The language in the UK’s integrated review might change, but forces beyond Sunak’s control mean the relationship is likely to continue to be bad.

In many ways, the Sinosceptic majority within the Conservative party is the smallest part of that. That the Xi of 2022 isn’t the Xi of 2018 is one factor. That Washington has moved so decisively towards Sinoscepticism is another.

But closer to home, the UK’s decision to give BNO Hong Kongers a new route to settle in the UK is essentially a guarantee that frostier relations between the UK and China are here to stay, either because of rows over how Hong Kongers resident in the UK are treated and surveilled, or because of protests outside the Chinese embassy or its UK consulates.

Sunak’s meeting with Xi was cancelled by outside events — Sunak’s hope of a better relationship will probably go the same way.

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Now try this

My last Shropshire recommendation is a restaurant (what else could it be?): the Raven in Much Wenlock. Very good food, very welcoming to muddy walkers, generally lovely.

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