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SAN DIEGO — He’s happy to describe China as a major challenge to the world order, but Rishi Sunak will stop short of formally designating Beijing a “threat” when the U.K. unveils its updated defense strategy on Monday.
As he flew to meet his U.S. and Australian counterparts in San Diego, California, to sign a major submarine deal, a move prompted by concern over China’s growing assertiveness on the world stage, the British prime minister was eager to talk up the “epoch-defining challenge” posed by what he characterized as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “authoritarian” regime.
But Britain’s Integrated Review (IR), which sets out the government’s defense priorities and will be unveiled Monday afternoon by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in the House of Commons, will not go as far as China hawks wanted. Those hawks, including Sunak’s immediate predecessor, Liz Truss, have pushed for Beijing to be officially labeled a “threat.”
Asked why he was stopping short, the prime minister said: “China represents a country that has very different values to ours. It presents an epoch-defining challenge to us and to the global order. It’s a regime that is increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad and has a desire to reshape the world order. We’ve recognized it as the biggest state-based threat to our economic security.”
Explaining why he preferred to characterize China as a “challenge” rather than a broader “threat,” Sunak continued: “I don’t think it’s smart or sophisticated policy to reduce our relationship with China, our approach to it, to just two words. What’s right is to look at the actions we’re taking to stand up for the things that are important to us. We’ve got to protect our security and our prosperity. And that’s why in the IR you will see a very thoughtful and detailed approach to China.”
During her brief premiership, Truss had planned to use the IR to officially label China a “threat” — a move which would have presented a major shift in the U.K.’s stance toward Beijing. Her proposed re-designation was warmly welcomed by many Conservative backbenchers, a number of whom have been sanctioned for speaking up on behalf of the persecuted Uyghur people.
Alicia Kearns, Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee, said she was disappointed that Sunak had not followed through on the plan. “I welcome the recognition of the threat of China, but this threat cannot be seen as primarily economic — that is to fail to understand China is foremost seeking to undermine our national security and sovereignty,” Kearns said. “No country can have economic security without national security.”
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith added: “We look soft to the Chinese. We have become fearful not feared.”
Talking to journalists accompanying him to California, Sunak pointed to measures including the blocking of a takeover of a Welsh microchip firm by a Chinese company, moves to shield the U.K. nuclear industry from Chinese investment, and the removal of surveillance equipment linked to national intelligence organizations as proof that his government was taking a firm stance toward Beijing.
He denied that the “tilt” toward the Pacific region, underlined by the so-called AUKUS submarine pact, risked over-stretching Britain’s defense capacity at a time of war in Europe. “It’s absolutely right that we do both,” he said, referring to the new focus on China and the Pacific while the Ukraine conflict continues to demand attention. “The reason for that is, as we’ve seen recently, our security is indivisible between these different areas.”
“Our allies share the same view that we do: when it comes to global affairs, you can’t ignore China,” Sunak said. “Given the size of their economy, it is necessary and right to engage with them in order to try and make a difference on things that we care about.”
The IR will confirm an additional £5 billion for the Ministry of Defense — around half the figure Defense Secretary Ben Wallace had requested to cope with the twin challenges of China and Russia.
Following a semi-public row between Wallace and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt over his budget, the Ministry of Defense issued a statement insisting: “The Defense Secretary is delighted with the settlement, especially in these economically challenging times.”
Sunak also committed to increasing spending on defense from 2 percent to 2.5 percent of GDP “in the longer term,” but declined to set out a more specific timetable.
Asked about the shortfall, and why the U.K. was not returning to the 3 percent target of his immediate predecessors, Sunak said Britain was the second-biggest contributor to NATO and had given £2.3 billion toward the war in Ukraine. “Our track record on this is very strong; when we make a commitment we follow through with it,” he added.
The extra defense cash includes £3 billion on nuclear-powered subs, and covers the three-way AUKUS megadeal that Sunak will sign with U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in San Diego on Monday. As part of the deal, the U.K. will build and supply Astute-class boats to fulfill Australia’s longer-term military ambitions.
The remaining £1.9 billion will replenish munitions stockpiles depleted by donations to Ukraine and will be used toward funding for government security programs.
Further measures set out in the review include the creation of a new National Protective Security Authority within the MI5 security service to advise British businesses on countering security threats; an Economic Deterrence Initiative designed to strengthen the U.K.’s sanctions regime; and a doubling in funding for the China Capabilities Program. The funding for that program, which provides investment for language and diplomatic training, was reported by POLITICO earlier this year.
Read Nore:Rishi Sunak talks tough on China — but defense plan may not satisfy hawks