Why is China considered a threat to the UK and how is the Government responding?

Why is China considered a threat to the UK and how is the Government responding?

Reports of Chinese interference in British democracy have led Rishi Sunak to confront Beijing’s representative at the G20 summit in India.

The Prime Minister spoke to Chinese premier Li Qiang hours after news emerged of two arrests under the Official Secrets Act, including of a parliamentary researcher with links to several senior Conservative MPs.

Even in the face of such actions, UK ministers insist on diplomatically describing China’s intrusions as a global “challenge” rather than a threat.

Here the PA news agency looks at actions by China which have raised alarm among some UK politicians, and how the Government has responded.

– What has China done to the UK which makes people think it is a threat?

China’s growing global influence has seen it take forthright steps on foreign soil over the last few decades.

MI5 issued a rare security alert last year, warning that suspected Chinese spy Christine Lee had engaged in “political interference activities” on behalf of China’s ruling communist regime.

She had donated more than £500,000 to Labour MP Barry Gardiner before the warning.

MI5 issues warning on Christine Ching Kui Lee
MI5 issued a rare security alert last year, warning that suspected Chinese spy Christine Lee had engaged in ‘political interference activities’ on behalf of China’s ruling communist regime (MI5/PA)

Conservative former minister Sir Iain Duncan Smith, meanwhile, has recently claimed that ministerial cars “may well have been tracked by the Chinese government without our knowledge” because of Chinese-made equipment within them.

There are also concerns about secret Chinese police stations on UK soil being used to intimidate and influence dissidents and exiles in Britain.

MPs have also raised concerns about Chinese-owned companies operating in the UK.

China’s national security laws may require firms based there to share privileged information with its government, even with clients or customers from abroad.

Social media platform TikTok was recently banned from use on UK ministers’ official phones because of the perceived risk to security.

Telecoms company Huawei’s technology is slowly being scrubbed from the UK’s 5G communications infrastructure because of similar concerns.

Last year national security concerns led the UK Government to ordered Nexperia, a company with links to China, to sell its majority stake in microchip maker Newport Wafer Fab.

There are also ongoing worries about Chinese involvement in other sectors, including genetic information research.

– What about its actions elsewhere in the world?

G20 summit
Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the 2022 G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, but did not attend this year’s gathering in New Delhi, India (Leon Neal/PA)

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, notably did not attend the G20 summit in India, amid a series of spats with the governments of other countries.

In his place, premier Li Qiang travelled to New Delhi, although India’s relationship with China remains frosty due to a dispute about their shared Himalayan border.

Beijing’s close relationship with Russia is also under scrutiny from other nations as the war in Ukraine continues.

In addition, China is engaged in continued sabre-rattling over its influence in the South China Sea, a waterway important to international trade and rich in natural resources, which it shares with several other countries.

The communist-run East Asian nation is also at the centre of a series of human rights concerns at home, because of its harsh treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in the north-west Xinjiang region, and the crackdown on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.

The UK and other Western nations also remain untrusting of China on global health matters, after a World Health Organisation investigation into the origin of Covid-19 appeared to spark more questions than answers.

– What actions are the UK’s top China critics calling for?

Erkin Tuniyaz visit protest
Former Tory Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith at a protest outside the Foreign Office over China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Conservative MPs are among the most strident critics of the Chinese government, including former party leader Sir Iain, Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns, and former prime minister Liz Truss.

Ms Truss urged her successor, Mr Sunak, to designate China as a “threat” to the UK during a post-prime ministerial visit to Taiwan in May.

Sir Iain and Ms Kearns have also argued that the UK needs to take a more hawkish stance against Beijing and Chinese companies present in the UK, amid the country’s authoritarian tendencies, its surveillance culture, and human rights abuses.

Even the Labour Party has weighed in on the continuing fraught relationship.

Shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds suggested actions such as the reported Westminster spying mean it would be “naive” not to consider China a threat, but insisted on the need to continue engaging in trade with the Chinese.

– What approach is the Government taking?

China Britain
Chinese Vice President Han Zheng hosted Foreign Secretary James Cleverly at the Great Hall of the People, the first visit to Beijing by a senior UK figure in five years (Florence Lo/Pool/AP)

Ministers continue to tread a fine line with China.

While the Government has taken action on companies such as Huawei and TikTok, and on the Nexperia takeover of Newport Wafer Fab, it does not want to alienate China.

In the 2023 refresh of the Government’s integrated review of defence, China was described as an “epoch-defining challenge”, and Mr Sunak has not risen to calls to describe the nation as a threat.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly recently became the first senior UK figure in five years to visit Beijing to speak to Chinese officials.

During the visit, he said he had robust conversations about China’s actions in the UK and across the world, but told the BBC it would not be “credible” to disengage from contact entirely.

But even ministerial thinking on China continues to appear confused.

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk felt the need to correct himself when he described the country as a threat in an interview on Sunday.

“The Prime Minister has been very clear when it comes to China. It is an epoch-defining threat … challenge, forgive me … so of course we have got to take it extremely seriously,” he told Sky’s Trevor Phillips.