Rishi Sunak has today claimed China is the “largest threat to Britain and the world’s security” in a bid to polish his foreign policy credentials.
The Tory leadership candidate said “enough is enough” of Beijing’s efforts to undermine democracy and steal overseas intellectual property, adding “I will stop China taking over our universities, and get British companies and public institutions the cyber-security they need”.
This includes plans to ban the 30 Confucius Institutes in the UK, educational organisations that allegedly act as overseas lobbyists for the Chinese government, and to bulk up MI5’s ability to stop cyber attacks.
It comes in response to attempts by leadership competitor, and race favourite, Liz Truss to paint Sunak as soft on China as she tries to solidify her support among the right of the party.
The foreign secretary has often spoken out on Beijing’s malign international influence and went after its government’s unfair trade practices when she was trade secretary.
“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,” Sunak said.
“At home, they are stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities. And abroad, they are propping up Putin’s fascist invasion of Ukraine by buying his oil and attempting to bully their neighbours, including Taiwan.
“They are saddling developing countries with insurmountable debt and using this to seize their assets or hold a diplomatic gun to their heads. They torture, detain and indoctrinate their own people, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, in contravention of their human rights. And they have continually rigged the global economy in their favour by suppressing their currency.”
The statement comes despite Sunak saying last week that he agreed with last year’s Integrated Review of Defence and Foreign Policy, which labelled China as a “systemic competitor” and not a “direct threat” like Russia.
Sunak is now the underdog in the race as early polling of the Tory membership puts Truss ahead by 20+ points.
The ex-chancellor will want to be seen as in line with the more hawkish instincts of many grassroots Conservative members.
Senior Tory MP, and Truss supporter, Sir Iain Duncan Smith said Sunak’s announcement was “surprising”.
“After all, over the last two years, the Treasury has pushed hard for an economic deal with China,” he said.
“This is despite China sanctioning myself and four UK parliamentarians.”
Truss and Sunak began a six-week campaign to win the votes of 200,000 Tory grassroots members last Thursday.
The winner of the contest will be crowned on 5 September and will likely enter Number 10 the next day.
The pair will face off in a series of hustings events and live TV debates in the coming weeks.