The University of Manchester

How Rishi Sunak’s 2024 political journey might be influenced by David Cameron’s historical and ongoing ties with China

Authored by Timothy Oliver

Shortly after assuming the role of foreign secretary, David Cameron’s ties with China caused controversy for Rishi Sunak’s government. Cameron’s previous warmth towards China during his tenure as prime minister led Luke de Pulford, director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, to criticize Sunak’s decision to appoint him.

Described as a “golden era” for UK-China relations, Cameron’s time in office now faces scrutiny in the current political climate. De Pulford accuses the new foreign secretary of supporting the UK’s biggest security threat, while Catherine West, Labour’s shadow minister for Asia and the Pacific, questions Cameron’s involvement in a Chinese infrastructure project in Sri Lanka since leaving office.

Cameron’s stance on China evolved from indifference to active embrace during his time as prime minister. The years 2015-16 were particularly significant for UK-China relations, highlighted by President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK, which demonstrated the value of China as a partner for the UK.

The implications of this evolving relationship in the current cooled relations between the two countries present complexities for the government and other stakeholders to navigate. As foreign secretary, Cameron holds significant formal power in foreign policy, but his party now holds a different view on China compared to his time in office.

Sunak has acted on this divergence by excluding China from the Sizewell C nuclear power station project in Suffolk.

The ebbs and flows of UK-China relations

When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came into power in 2010, China did not receive extensive attention in their foreign policy approach. The policies acknowledged China’s economic rise and advocated for engagement to address shared challenges.

China was grouped under a broad and vague category of “rising powers” that the UK aimed to engage with more closely. It was important, but not significant enough to warrant its own category.

This grouping may partially explain the first significant moment in Cameron’s relationship with China when he met with the Dalai Lama in London in 2012.

This meeting upset Beijing, leading to a “deep freeze” in UK-China relations for nearly 18 months. Ultimately, Cameron shifted his position on Tibet to align more closely with Beijing’s stance, publicly rejecting Tibetan independence and recognizing China’s sovereignty.

Warming up

By November 2013, relations between China and the UK had improved, and a rapid convergence between the two countries was evident. The peak of this convergence was Xi’s state visit to the UK in autumn 2015.

During a joint press conference, Cameron emphasized the strong economic, diplomatic, and “people-to-people” links between China and the UK. He advocated for deeper cooperation in areas such as health, climate change, and extremism, and established formal ties with China in infrastructure investment. He expressed the shared interest in a stable and orderly international rule between the UK and China.

Within a month, the Cameron government published an updated strategic defense review that significantly expanded on UK-China relations compared to the 2010 document. The government aspired for the UK to become China’s leading partner in the West.

This ambition encompassed a close economic relationship, as well as deeper diplomatic and security ties.

Cooling down

However, this developing relationship was disrupted by the EU referendum in June 2016 and Cameron’s departure from office. Subsequent governments led by Theresa May and Boris Johnson were more focused on handling Brexit and appeared more skeptical of relations with China compared to Cameron.

Issues such as democracy in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and Chinese espionage activities in the UK have led Conservative MPs to adopt a more hawkish stance on China. While Liz Truss was more openly skeptical of China than Sunak, none of the prime ministers who succeeded Cameron shared his level of conciliation on the matter.

Therefore, there are two significant risks for the UK government. Cameron’s ties with China may further strain relations with restive backbench MPs. As the Conservative party is already divided on various issues, tensions could escalate due to disputes over the new foreign secretary’s position on China.

Additionally, the divergence in intentions among senior government members risks sending confusing signals to China. This poses challenges for issues such as the debt burden faced by countries involved in China’s belt and road initiative.

Cameron’s advocacy for projects in countries like Sri Lanka, currently dealing with the consequences of the initiative, may create mixed messages. In the event of a major crisis, such as the upcoming Taiwanese election, confusing messaging could occur.

Beijing may now anticipate a more conciliatory approach when one is not intended. Cameron’s signals may inadvertently suggest a less assertive response to a crisis. International crises always carry risks of miscalculation, and if China perceives its Western supporters as internally divided, it may seek to exploit the situation for its own geopolitical advantage.

Consequently, Cameron’s legacy in the UK-China relationship poses significant risks for both the Conservative Party and UK-China relations. Navigating these risks will be a challenge for all parties involved.

Greater clarity from Cameron on his vision for UK-China relations may provide some breathing space, but it may also underscore existing divisions. Ultimately, it falls to Cameron’s current boss, Rishi Sunak, to try and resolve these tensions, ideally before a major crisis erupts.\"The

Timothy Oliver, Lecturer in British Politics and Public Policy, The University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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