While Britain’s conflict with Russia is playing out on the battlefield of Ukraine, escalating tensions between London and Beijing are largely unfolding a little more discreetly at home: in universities, among researchers and in hi-tech and other strategic businesses.
It may not be a high-profile drama of poisonings and deadly weapons supply, but hundreds of Chinese researchers have been turned away from British projects over the last couple of years, as trust between the two countries has been eroded.
A further 50 researchers, already in the UK, have also been quietly asked to leave the country, accused of being linked to the China’s People’s Liberation Army.
It already reflects a significant shift in policy from “golden era” of cooperation hoped for by David Cameron in 2015 at the time of state visit to the UK by China’s president, Xi Jinping – long before the publication of Monday’s refreshed integrated review of defence and foreign policy.
Ironically, the refresh was put in train by the short-lived premiership of Liz Truss, with the purpose of ratcheting up Britain’s hostility to China, changing the UK’s overall stance from “systemic competitor” to “threat” – a position rejected by Rishi Sunak.
Ultimately the document fought shy of the threat designation, choosing to define Beijing as posing an “epoch-defining and systemic challenge with implications for almost every area of government policy”. But it allows the UK to come a little closer to the US, which increasingly sees China as its long-term, defining competitor.
A review by the Pentagon last year described China as a “pacing challenge”, and a “comprehensive and serious challenge to US national security” – anxieties that underline Monday’s confirmation that Australia will get nuclear propulsion technology from the UK and US so its submarines can match Beijing’s in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Policy experts say escalating the rhetoric dramatically would only serve to unnecessarily increase existing tensions at a time when there is western concern about whether Beijing is prepared to supply weapons to Russia for the war in Ukraine.
Charles Parton, a former British diplomat with 22 years of China experience, said there was nothing extra to be gained, adding: “It doesn’t make for good policy. They are a threat, but we have to cooperate on areas like climate change, which we never had to do with the Soviet Union. But we also have to recognise that Beijing sees itself in an existential struggle with western capitalism.”
The analyst pointed to a 2013 speech, re-published in 2019, in which the Chinese leader spoke of “the eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism” in what would inevitably be “a long historical process”.
Reflecting such thinking, Britain’s intelligence community has emphasised its concern that authoritarian China could one day take control of critical technologies such as artificial intelligence. Last October Jeremy Fleming, the boss of spy agency GCHQ, said China wanted to “gain strategic advantage by shaping the world’s technology ecosystems”.
After a long period of laissez-faire, a handful of takeovers of British firms by Chinese companies have being blocked under the recently passed National Security and Investment Act, including the purchase of Newport Wafer Fab, the UK’s largest silicon chip factory.
Chinese espionage activities in the UK are often subtle and long term – and nefarious activity difficult to spot. In an exceptional case, MI5 did issue a warning in January last year about lobbyist Christine Lee, accusing her of seeking to improperly influence MPs and peers, using money she was said to have raised from “foreign nationals” in Hong Kong and China.
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But Lee was not prosecuted either, partly reflecting the UK’s effort to proceed discreetly and what the intelligence community insists is outdated legislation. When three Chinese spies posing as journalists were expelled in 2020, the story did not emerge until the following year because their removal was hushed up.
The problem for the government is there is political frustration with any perceived gradualist approach. Conservative MPs repeatedly rebelled with Labour support, demanding tougher sanctions, when the government tried to restrict the use of Huawei equipment in British phone network.
An attempt to force the UK to reconsider trade deals with a regime defined in a UK court as genocidal – aimed at Beijing – failed by 11 votes in 2021.
High-profile critics, such as former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith, complained on Monday that the UK “did not kick out the Chinese officials who beat people up on the streets” – referring to the UK response to an incident in October when a pro democracy protester was beaten Chinese officials outside the country’s consulate in Manchester. Six diplomats left two months later, without agreeing to be questioned by UK police.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Stephen Kinnock called for an “in-depth strategic audit” of the UK’s relationship with China and “no return to the utterly failed ‘golden era’ strategy” – indicating that politicians still want to go further than officials or experts are recommending.