On 14 July 2022, the House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate:

Lord West of Spithead (Labour) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to respond to the long-term security challenges posed by China.

1. UK-China relations and security challenges

1.1 Overview

During the period of the coalition government and David Cameron’s 2015–2016 Conservative government the UK and China experienced a so-called “golden era” of relations, in which the UK government encouraged trade and business investment with China.

However, in recent years relations between the two countries have deteriorated. Concerns have been raised over a range of foreign policy and security challenges posed by China, including:

1.2 NATO summit 2022

In June 2022, the NATO heads of government summit took place in Madrid. The declaration agreed at the summit referred to the specific threat posed by China:

We face systemic competition from those, including the People’s Republic of China, who challenge our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order.

The summit adopted a new strategic concept document, which set out NATO’s strategic challenges and its political and military priorities. On China, the strategic concept stated:

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values. The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up. The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target allies and harm alliance security. The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains.

The document also raised concerns about China’s “deepening strategic partnership” with Russia and their attempts to “undercut the rules-based international order”. In response, NATO said it would “boost our shared awareness, enhance our resilience and preparedness, and protect against the PRC’s coercive tactics and efforts to divide the alliance”.

1.3 MI5 and FBI joint address on China, July 2022

On 6 July 2022, the heads of the UK Security Service (MI5) and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) held an “unprecedented joint address” to warn of the “immense” threat from China. Speaking at MI5 headquarters in London, FBI Director Christopher Wray said China posed “the biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security”. He told the audience of business people and academic leaders that China “poses an even more serious threat to Western businesses than even many sophisticated businesspeople realize” and the country was “set on stealing your technology”.

Director General of MI5 Ken McCallum said the most “game-changing challenge we face comes from the Chinese Communist Party”. He said it was involved in attempts to illegally procure “tech, AI [artificial intelligence], advanced research and product development” through theft, espionage, and cyber attacks. In response, Mr McCallum said MI5 had “doubled our previously constrained effort against Chinese activity of concern” and was running seven times as many investigations into Chinese threats compared to 2018.

2. UK’s policy response: Integrated review of security and defence 2021

The UK government’s position on its longer-term security challenges was set out the in the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, published in March 2021. The review set out the government’s vision on security and defence matters up to 2030 and the actions it would take to 2025.

Specifically on its assessment of China, the review described the country as a “systemic competitor”. It stated:

China’s growing international stature is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today, with major implications for British values and interests and for the structure and shape of the international order. The fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours, presents challenges for the UK and our allies […] China and the UK both benefit from bilateral trade and investment, but China also presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.

The government said it would invest in “China-facing capabilities” which will allow the UK to better understand China and its people, while also improving the UK’s ability to respond to the challenge it poses to “our security, prosperity and values—and those of our allies and partners”.

However, the review also emphasised the government’s intention to pursue a “positive trade and investment relationship” with China, while also ensuring that national security is protected. It also acknowledged that cooperation with China on transnational issues such as climate change is a necessity.

3. Criticism of the government’s response: International Relations and Defence Committee report on the UK and China’s security relationship

3.1 The committee’s findings

The government’s position on China was criticised by the report of the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee published in September 2021, ‘The UK and China’s security and trade relationship: A strategic void’.

The report focused on the past decade, a period in which the committee said China had become “more assertive and hardened its stance on its territorial integrity and national sovereignty”. It also criticised the integrated review for providing “no detail” on the government’s plans for “balancing its ambition for increased economic engagement with China with the need to protect the UK’s wider interests and values”. The committee recommended that the government “publish a clear China strategy which identifies key objectives and relative priorities”.

Specifically on the security challenges posed by China, the committee divided these between “traditional” and “non-traditional” challenges:

Traditional challenges. The committee said these included the following:

  • maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region: the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Indo-Chinese border
  • formal alliances: promotion of the Five Powers Defence Arrangements between the UK, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore; and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US
  • cybersecurity and technology: the committee heard evidence of China’s ability to gain access to “critical and sensitive information through cyber-espionage” and cyber attacks

Non-traditional challenges. These included:

  • “democratic regression” in Southeast Asia (including Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia)
  • Chinese policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang
  • security challenges related to climate change, including “increased food and water insecurity, forced migration and displacement”

The committee concluded that the UK had a policy of “deliberate constructive ambiguity” towards China. It said that on such a “crucial issue” as the UK’s trade and security relationship with the country, the UK needed “much more clarity than it has had hitherto”.

3.2 Government response to the committee report

The government published its response to the committee’s report in November 2021. It defended the position set out in the integrated review, stating that it “recognised the profound impact” China “has and will continue to have worldwide”. The government said the integrated review was clear that the UK would “continue to defend our values and interests”, and it highlighted examples in which the government had done so: for example, in relation to China’s actions in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The response said that it was in the UK’s interests to continue to trade with China, but it was “important to avoid strategic dependency” on China. The government said that the national security council provided “clear direction” for the government’s China policy and that it was supported by the work of the integrated review.

In January 2022, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the chair of the international relations and defence committee, wrote to the government following its response to the report. Baroness Anelay said she was “disappointed” that the government had not explicitly confirmed whether it would publish a strategy on China, which was the main recommendation of the report. She reiterated the committee’s view that the government’s position on China was “ambiguous”. She said the uncertainty was “damaging to businesses and detrimental to our partnerships and alliances in the region”. In particular, she said it was unclear how the government intended to balance human rights issues with its economic relationship with China, and “how it will prioritise when these considerations clash”.

The minister for Asia at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Amanda Milling, replied to Baroness Anelay in February 2022. Ms Milling reiterated that the government’s policy toward China sought to “uphold our values and protect our national security” while promoting a positive and reliable trading relationship. She did not commit to publishing a specific China strategy. However, she said that the government would continue its “extensive programme of engagement with UK business to ensure our policy is well understood”.

On the human rights situation in Xinjiang, the government said that its concerns over human rights had resulted in it not sending any government representation to the winter Olympics in China in February 2022. The government said it had imposed sanctions, applied export controls and imposed penalties under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The government said it was clear that “more trade will not come at the expense of human rights”.

4. Read more

4.1 Parliamentary material

4.2 Other sources

Cover image by Christian Lue on Unsplash.