The golden era of UK-China relations is over: PM of UK Rishi Sunak

United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said the so-called “golden age” of relations with China is over, as he vowed to “evolve” the UK’s stance towards the country.

In his first foreign policy speech, the PM said the close economic ties of the last decade were “naïve”.

He said the UK now needed to replace wishful thinking towards competitors with “robust pragmatism”.

But he cautioned against “Cold War rhetoric”, saying China’s global importance cannot be ignored.

Mr Sunak has faced pressure from Tory backbenchers to toughen Britain’s stance on China since taking office as Tory leader and UK prime minister last month.

The speech, for the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London, comes after protests in China over the weekend against the country’s strict Covid lockdown laws.

Police have made several arrests and on Sunday a BBC journalist was detained while covering a protest in Shanghai. He was beaten and kicked by the police during his arrest, and was held for several hours before being released.

Mr Sunak told an audience of business leaders and foreign policy experts that, in the face of the protests, China had “chose to move forward, including attacking the BBC journalist”.

He said that the “golden age” of UK–China relations was over, along with the “naive idea” that greater trade with the West would lead to Chinese political reform.

The phrase “golden age” is associated with closer economic ties under former Prime Minister David Cameron – but relations between London and Beijing have deteriorated since then.

However, Mr Sunak stressed that “we cannot simply ignore China’s importance in global affairs – on issues such as global economic stability or climate change”.

He said the UK would work with allies including the US, Canada, Australia and Japan to “manage this intensifying competition through diplomacy and engagement”.

Mr Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss was reportedly planning to reclassify China as a “threat” to Britain as part of her foreign policy review.

But the “strong pragmatism” line in the speech was criticized by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, one of several backbenchers pushing for a tougher line.

Responding to a preview of the speech, he wrote in the Daily Express that China poses a “clear and present danger to us and our allies”.

Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy called the speech “as thin as it gets”, accusing the prime minister of “inverting his rhetoric on China”.

Elsewhere in his speech, Sunak pledged continued support for Ukraine, saying: “We will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes”.

He promised to “maintain or increase” British military aid to the country over the next year, and new air support to protect civilians and critical infrastructure.

Mr Sunak met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this month, in his first visit to Kyiv since entering Downing Street.

During the visit, he announced that the UK would supply Ukraine with additional anti-aircraft guns and radars, and would increase the training given to Ukraine’s armed forces.