UK’s getting-tough-on-China race self-deception

National flags of China and Britain are seen in front of the UK pavilion in the World Expo Park in Shanghai, East China, April 23, 2010. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

The ongoing contest to decide the next UK prime minister and head of the Conservative Party has finally entered its final round. The choice, which now goes to a vote of about 160,000 rank-and-file members of the party, is between Elizabeth Truss, the current foreign secretary, and Rishi Sunak, former finance minister.

The United Kingdom is mired in a mess of pressing domestic problems after the shambolic showmanship-over-policies that was the defining feature of Boris Johnson's scandal-minting time in office. One of which, the so-called Partygate scandal, led to the author of the investigating report criticizing him for "serious failures of leadership and judgment"-a damning indictment of his suitability to be head of the country given it was a civil service report.

Demonstrating that they have a firm grasp of the problems confronting the country and have a clear understanding of what needs to be done to remedy them, both Sunak and Truss have laid out clear plans of action that they will pursue if they get the keys to 10 Downing Street.

Except that their plans are almost identical-and equally absurd. They are going to get tough on China.

In their fiery head-to-head television debate, UK-based Financial Times said, the two candidates "clashed over who would take the toughest stance on China in the battle to become Britain's next prime minister".

Sunak claimed that "China is a threat to our national security, a threat to our economic security" with Truss responding by saying "I'm delighted that you've come round to my way of thinking". Her spokesperson had previously said that she had strengthened the UK's position on China as foreign secretary and she promised to be even tougher if she becomes the prime minister.

The two candidates even accused each other of "being too soft" on China; Sunak because as chancellor of the exchequer he was planning a UK-China economic and finance conference for the first time since 2019, Truss because she held a conference at a Confucius Institute in the UK in 2014, in which she politely wished the institute the "very best of luck".

While their words show they both have a clear grasp of what the ideologically-driven party puppet masters expect of them, being Washington-lite on China will not resolve the cost-of-living crisis in the UK or the Northern Ireland Protocol question or any of the other immediate issues that will confront the winner on becoming leader of the country.

Over the seven years since they celebrated what was hailed as the start of a golden era for their relations, the two countries have been on different trajectories with the UK sinking into the morass of its self-inflicted sufferings and China continuing to make fresh development progress.

There might be many other reasons for this, but one key factor is that the UK has been completely enthralled by the United States. The UK has paid a heavy price for this in terms of its previously flourishing relationship with China.

The soured relationship with China is one of the real issues confronting the UK. And it is one for which Sunak and Truss both have the wrong answer.