Cold War with China would ‘betray’ Britain’s national interests, UK foreign secretary warns

LONDON — Britain must engage with China rather than isolate Beijing in a “new Cold War,” the U.K. foreign secretary will say Tuesday in a warning shot to Tory China hawks.

James Cleverly will set out the U.K.’s approach toward China in a long-awaited speech on Tuesday, weeks after the government’s updated Integrated Review of defense and foreign policy described relations with the emerging superpower as an “epoch-defining and systemic challenge.”

Cleverly is expected to set out a three-pronged approach for relations with Beijing — limiting Chinese involvement in sectors deemed critical for national security; strengthening ties with Indo-Pacific allies; and — most controversially — engaging with China directly to promote stable relations.

And in a message to the increasingly outspoken China hawks within his Conservative Party, the foreign secretary will warn against an era of open confrontation with Beijing that might harm the U.K.’s economic interests and limit the West’s ability to engage on shared challenges, including climate change and nuclear proliferation.

“It would be clear and easy — perhaps even satisfying — for me to declare a new Cold War and say that our goal is to isolate China,” Cleverly is expected to say, according to words shared by his department ahead of the speech.

“Clear, easy, satisfying — and wrong. Because it would be a betrayal of our national interest and a wilful misunderstanding of the modern world.”

Under pressure from Tory MPs, Rishi Sunak has toughened his approach toward China since becoming prime minister, ordering the sale last November of a Chinese-owned semiconductor plant in Wales under new national security legislation.

Cleverly has focused on building alliances with countries close to China, returning at the weekend from a tour of the Pacific — the first visit to some areas by a British foreign secretary since the 1970s. Britain recently signed deals to join a Pacific-focused defense pact with Australia and the U.S., and a large free-trade agreement with 11 Pacific rim nations including Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.

But Britain is yet to join the group of large European countries sending their leaders on official visits to Beijing. French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen both visited China earlier this month.

Cleverly himself is expected to visit China later in 2023, but Downing Street has not floated any travel plans for the prime minister.

Cleverly’s remarks come as some British firms cut their ties with China and move their activity to other countries in preparation for a worsening in relations. The U.K. says it wants to continue helping British companies do business with China — but without entering strategic dependencies.

In his speech to the Lord Mayor’s Easter Banquet, Cleverly will call on China to be more open about the intent behind its vast military expansion in order to prevent a “tragic miscalculation,” and say the U.K. and its allies “are prepared to be open about our presence in the Indo-Pacific.”

He will also send a strongly worded message on the need for the Chinese government to respect human rights within its borders, describing China’s repression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang as an attempt to build “a 21st century version of the gulag archipelago.”

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