Labour on China, Solar panelling and Xinjiang, Truss in Japan, Xinjiang visit
A Beijing to Britain briefing
Although Parliament was on recess this week, three stories floating around Westminster are worth unpacking. The first involves the so-called Chinese “spy balloons”, the second a visit to London by Erkin Tuniyaz, the governor of Xinjiang, and the third a planned intervention from the Foreign Secretary dubbed “the great clarification”.
The spy balloons story floated into the Westminster discourse thanks to the Biden Administration gunning down at least one of them in their neck of the woods. How seriously should Britain be taking these balloons as a potential threat? The answer seemingly depends on who you asked, when you asked, as the Government apparently couldn’t brief one line for its ministers to take. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace admitted that the UK doesn’t actually know if these balloons had flown overhead, so junior transport minister Richard Holden followed up on a press round a while later that it “was possible”, concluding "the government is concerned about what's going on," and adding that "China is a hostile state and we need to be aware of that and the way it acts and behaves." Prime Minister Rishi Sunak then promised to do "whatever it takes" to protect UK airspace, while Foreign Affairs Chair Alicia Kearns chimed in to warn that "The Chinese Communist Party is in our skies, on our streets and in our pockets - it's time everyone woke up to the threat, and that they don't play by the rules." Lots of posturing with little substance, especially given that the Biden Administration itself appears unclear as to the balloon situation.
The second incident came in the shape of Xinjiang governor Erkin Tuniyaz’s efforts to visit to the UK. Tuniyaz was not invited to the UK, but in the words of a Foreign Office junior minister, meeting him would present an opportunity to “express a very forthright condemnation of the outrages in Xinjiang." This naturally saw massive pushback and criticism from the commentariat, human rights activists and groups, IPAC, and Parliamentary figures like Iain Duncan Smith, Alicia Kearns and Chris Bryant; some called for Tuniyaz to be arrested for his ties to the atrocities in Xinjiang (he is currently sanctioned by the Americans). Eventually, on Tuesday evening it was revealed the visit would not be going ahead: still, this is an episode that will further fracture ties between Whitehall and Parliament and undermine Downing Street’s legitimacy. As I discussed with the Financial Times this week, the episode begs the following questions: what was the strategic point of taking these meetings? What did the FCDO expect was going to happen? Why do they think Tuniyaz was visiting, or who do they think asked him to come? And why were they unable to communicate clearly to Parliament why they had chosen to have this meeting, other than to “express a forthright condemnation”?
This leads to the third and most revealing story doing the rounds. Wounded by the criticism, and perhaps seeking to nullify further criticism from figures like Liz Truss, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is reported to be “preparing a new intervention dubbed 'the great clarification' in a bid to explain Britain's changing relationship with [China]”, per The Sun. As a reminder: Cleverly gave his major foreign policy speech just over two months ago, with Sunak’s the month before that. Is the mark of a solid foreign policy foundation one that needs to be re-communicated and amended every quarter? Doing so also begs the question: who are they trying to convince?
MPs and Peers concerned with China affairs sit on a sliding scale when it comes to giving Prime Minister Rishi Sunak time to express his Government’s approach to China. The loudest, like Iain Duncan Smith, want immediate action, such as designating China to be a “threat” or sanctioning Chinese officials. Others are willing to see what the Integrated Review refresh throws up and what thematic action the Government takes in spaces like semiconductors or export controls. But incidents like this convey the impression that Downing Street and the Foreign Office do not have a coherent approach to China, that Sunak’s “robust pragmatism” pitch is just empty rhetoric that fails to stand up when the reality is thrust upon it, and that concerns Parliamentarians repeatedly raise are being ignored.
— Sam Hogg, Editor
In this week’s Briefing Note, we look at:
Labour’s latest rhetoric on China, the news that the Government are willing to arrange a visit, and the Liz Truss speech
the recommendations experts have given the Government to help counter Chinese monopoly across the solar panel supply chain
why the Government is pushing back against Parliament’s attempts to remove Chinese surveillance companies, and a warning from a senior official
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