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This Policy Brief proposes six principles for a more dynamic and broadly based – and so more effective – China strategy.
China poses an ‘epoch-defining and systemic challenge with implications for almost every area of government policy and the everyday lives of British people’, according to the UK’s March 2023 Integrated Review Refresh. While stopping short of labelling China a ‘threat’, this is a marked shift from the ‘golden era’ of UK–China relations heralded during Xi Jinping’s 2015 visit to the UK.
Such a shift in assessment requires a commensurate response. This Policy Brief reviews the government’s response to China to date and examines criticisms of its approach, including calls to publish an ‘unclassified version of its China Strategy’. Rather than detail specific policy recommendations or argue in broad-brush terms for a more hawkish or dovish stance, the brief proposes six principles for a more dynamic and broadly based – and so more effective – China strategy. It argues that, while publishing a strategy document may aid communication, there are more important things to be done.
Changes After the ‘Golden Era’
Much has changed since 2015. Notwithstanding current travails, China’s economy has grown by nearly 50% in real terms and accounts for a larger share of global trade. The country’s ambitions in new technologies have become more widely understood and borne some fruit, notably in renewable energy and electric vehicles. President Xi has focused on self-reliance at home, emphasising national security and the leading role of the Chinese Communist Party, while becoming more active on the world stage. Last year, NATO concluded that China’s ‘stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values’. The US’s ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, said last year that US–China relations might be at their ‘lowest moment’ since Nixon’s 1972 China visit. Tensions over Taiwan have risen sharply.
Throughout this, trade with China has grown. In the 12 months to March 2023, China was the UK’s fourth-largest trading partner, though the UK ran a £38 billion trade deficit. 1 Questions of security and values, always present in the China policy debate, have however come strongly to the fore. China’s imposition and subsequent interpretation of the 2020 Hong Kong National Security Law have caused widespread outrage. Detailed reporting of China’s human rights abuses against the Xinjiang Uyghurs gained media attention and stirred parliamentary debate and opposition. The government has identified China as a significant source of cyber attacks on UK interests, with increased activity and disinformation campaigns during the Covid-19 pandemic. The recent China report from Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) concluded that ‘China’s size, ambition and capability have enabled it to successfully penetrate every sector of the UK’s economy’. Additionally, China’s initial slow Covid response and its refusal to allow a full WHO investigation have damaged trust. Its stance on Ukraine has further sharpened concerns. And, while the UK has been the leading destination for Chinese direct investment into Europe since 2000, activity has recently fallen away sharply.
The UK government has taken action on numerous fronts. In 2020, the Johnson-led government reversed the decision to allow the purchase of Huawei’s 5G technology following a reassessment of security risks and political pressure from the Trump administration. Chinese involvement in the UK’s nuclear power programme came under renewed scrutiny, leading to a buyout of China’s interest in the Sizewell C project. The Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa scheme has enabled close to 130,000 Hong Kong nationals to move to the UK. The 2021 National Security and Investment Act introduced a tighter screening process for foreign investment into key sectors. The 2023 National Security Act established a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme. This year also saw announcements of a Critical Minerals Strategy refresh, the National Protective Security Authority and an Economic Deterrence Initiative. Nonetheless, when security is not an issue, the UK remains ‘open for business from China’. There are also policies, urged by some backbench MPs, that the government has not pursued. It has not declared Chinese actions in Xinjiang to be a genocide and has not followed the US in sanctioning Hong Kong officials.
Consistent with the Integrated Review’s ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’, the UK has been active in the region. A carrier strike group was deployed there in 2021 for the first time since 1997, and will return in 2025. The UK is the first non-regional member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. It has been active in helping formulate stronger G7 and NATO positions on China, and has shaped and joined new minilateral partnerships including the AUKUS agreement, the Global Combat Air Programme and the Mineral Security Partnership. The sanctioning of Xinjiang officials was announced in coordination with the US, Canada and the EU.
Is This a Strategy?
Throughout all this, many have called on the government to publish a China strategy. In 2019, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) called for ‘a single, detailed public document defining the UK’s China strategy … [to] be published by the end of 2020’. In 2021, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee entitled its report ‘The UK and China’s Security and Trade Relationship: A Strategic Void’.
This year has seen progress. The Refresh summarised the UK’s approach to China with three pillars: Protect/Align/Engage:
- Protect the UK through enhancing security measures in critical national infrastructure, supply chains, democratic freedoms and science and technology.
- Align with ‘core allies and a broader group of partners’ to deepen cooperation.
- Engage with China directly and multilaterally so as to ‘where possible cooperate on global challenges’ and secure a ‘positive trade and investment relationship’, while ‘avoiding dependencies … and protecting our national security’.
In April, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly expanded on this in a speech, ‘Our Position on China’, arguing that ‘we must engage with China where necessary and be unflinchingly realistic about its authoritarianism’. Cleverly’s August visit to Beijing drew on the same position. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has described the approach as ‘robust pragmatism’, while also calling China ‘the biggest challenge of our age to global security and prosperity’ after the May G7 meeting.
No detailed China paper has been published, however – nothing similar to Germany’s recently published China strategy. In August, the FAC called again for an ‘unclassified China strategy’. Charles Parton, a long-time China analyst, has described the lack of a clearly communicated China strategy as the ‘panda in the room’.
Pressures for Greater Clarity
The government’s approach can be criticised from three angles. First, that the ‘three pillars’ strategy does not amount to an appropriate or even coherent course of action. Second, that it lacks specifics and glosses over trade-offs. Third, that publishing a detailed China strategy brings benefits greater than any associated costs.
Protect/Align/Engage implicitly rejects alternative strategies of large-scale decoupling or unquestioning engagement. Some simply disagree with this approach, seeing it as riddled with contradictions. A three-pillar framing is not, however, unique to the UK. It reflects the ‘complicated and sophisticated’ nature of relations with the world’s second-largest economy. The US speaks of ‘invest, align, compete’, following US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s earlier description of the US–China relationship as ‘competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, adversarial when it must be’. The EU has described China as a negotiating partner, economic competitor and systemic rival. China also mostly pursues a similar approach, while at times strategically choosing to reject it. In 2021, foreign minister Wang Yi stated that ‘China–U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China–U.S. relations’. With Australia and Lithuania, China has linked disagreements on Taiwan and Covid-19 with economic relations. The UK does also need a response to such situations.
The lack of focus on trade-offs is a more compelling criticism. The approach smacks of ‘cakeism’, promising to secure all the benefits and address all the negatives that China presents, while ducking value judgements and tough choices on priorities.
For instance, the UK is to engage China on climate matters, and China leads in renewable energy. So what is the stance on sourcing solar panels from Xinjiang given well-documented reports of forced labour and its likely presence in UK supply chains? Does reliance on China reflect successful engagement, an unacceptable breach of our values, or a security risk? Universities benefit financially and intellectually from Chinese students and research collaborations, while facing risks of revenue dependence, challenge to academic freedoms and leakage of sensitive research. How should the UK navigate this? University leaders need better guidance based on the government’s assessment of trade-offs and priorities.
Finally, a more detailed China strategy could be published, but the benefits need to exceed the costs. The ISC’s China report states that as of 2019, ‘the National Security Council (NSC) owns and creates [government] policy on China’, which is then set out in a six-pillar ‘China Framework’. Even the names of three of these pillars are redacted. The related China National Strategy Implementation Group seeks to avoid a ‘binary prosperity vs. security’ approach. So trade-offs are considered, but there is no external communication of how this is done.
Publishing would provide a better basis for debate, challenge and holding the government to account, and also provide clearer guidance to those making China-related decisions. The only previous China policy paper, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s ‘The UK and China: A Framework for Engagement’ (2009), stated that ‘this document is intended to begin a broader conversation’.
The argument is finely balanced, however. By their nature, elements of the China strategy need to remain confidential, not least from Beijing. Discussion and challenge of a redacted strategy paper can skew debate. Any published paper serves more to communicate a narrative than to describe a government’s full strategy. And decision-makers often need more sector-specific guidance than a single paper can communicate. A published strategy paper is no panacea.
Six Principles for a More Dynamic and Effective UK–China Strategy
Implementation of the right China strategy, itself made up of a myriad of China-related decisions, is more important than a single paper. Keeping in mind the following six principles will help formulate a more dynamic and effective China strategy for the UK.
1. Strategy should be more than a document.
‘Strategy’ is a popular word, yet one used by different people with different meanings. At heart, it is about making choices to achieve defined objectives or outcomes and then putting in place the required resources to realise them. Roger Martin, a leading business strategy academic, writes that ‘strategy is choice. Strategy is not a long planning document’. While those implementing need to understand the strategy, no company publishes its strategy in full on its website. Nor does any country. Important elements are confidential, shared on a need-to-know basis.
Strategy is dynamic and iterative, rather than static and one-time. It considers and addresses multiple, changing contingencies. In today’s world, decisions are made in changing, uncertain circumstances based on imperfect information. China and the UK’s allies alike react and adapt to the choices made by others.
This means that a detailed set of actions, decided centrally, fixed and then communicated to others to implement, is unlikely to succeed. Rather, many different people need to make decisions that together amount to a strategy. This is, in the words of management scholar Henry Mintzberg, ‘emergent strategy’. At times, this can be hard to distinguish from a contradictory ‘muddling through’ and no overall strategy. This does not, however, make the approach any less valid. Determining which elements of the China strategy should be centrally determined – and which not – is an important matter of judgement.
2. Strategy should be explicit about whose behaviours need to change – or stay the same – in order to bring about specific outcomes.
Good strategy is clear on both desired outcomes and the behaviours – continuing or changed – needed to bring them about. The current UK government seeks ‘a positive trade and investment relationship’ with China. But it is does not explain what this statement really means, or what needs to happen for this to occur. By contrast, the 2009 China ‘Framework for Engagement’ did contain very detailed targeted outcomes. However, this document contained few specifics about how they might be achieved. The current UK–China strategy would benefit from greater clarity on both aspects.
It is much easier for the UK government to affect behaviours at home than in China, or even in ‘like-minded countries’. A China strategy must take much of what China does as a given. It should then determine how best to change what happens in the UK, while taking account of how China (and others) might act in response. Government can change behaviours at home by banning or mandating certain activities, or by changing incentives and providing better information to those who then decide for themselves. Which approach makes sense, and where, is at the heart of a clear China strategy. Clearer communication of the government’s perspective on this would allow others to make better decisions on China matters.
For Lawrence Freedman, strategy is the ‘art of creating power’. China’s economy is five times larger than the UK’s, and its population 20 times as large. The Integrated Review recognises that if the UK is to influence the choices of Chinese decision-makers, it needs to gain scale through working with others – hence recent extensive collaboration through the G7, NATO and other fora. Here too, however, the UK’s ability to change behaviour is shaped by what others choose. US policy plays an especially critical role, both regarding its own stance on China and its appetite to act in coordination with allies or alone. If US policy becomes significantly more or less hawkish, the options for the UK’s China strategy also shift: US policy on Taiwan shapes any role that the UK might play. China’s reaction to the UK’s choices also depends partly on how the British approach compares with those of other major countries. French President Emmanuel Macron’s April visit to Beijing yielded commercial contracts, while Rishi Sunak has yet to meet President Xi.
3. A China strategy is for the whole UK, not just for government.
In developing the strategy, the simple term ‘UK China strategy’ merits unpacking and definition. It is about more than the bilateral relationship. Abroad, the UK encounters China in its relations with every country and in multilateral organisations. At home, China is not just a matter for government. Thousands, perhaps, millions, of people take decisions where China plays a role – from supplier selection to deciding how to protect open academic discussion in universities. Equally, while China is important, it is not everything: there are many other topics that matter to the UK. Still, many major decisions have an important China component without being decisions ‘about China’.
This breadth is important because China is often described as taking a ‘whole-of-state’ approach to its affairs, whereby the Party’s dominant role removes any meaningful distinction between government and private actors. The ISC report discusses the security risks that this poses to British interests. In its most extreme formulation, the term significantly overestimates the Party’s coordination and cohesion across a country of 1.4 billion people, but the risks cannot be ignored.
The UK must formulate an appropriate response that meets the challenge, while preserving our distinctive democratic strengths and diversity of opinion, not seeking to ape the controlling approach of the Chinese party-state. The UK government itself needs a ‘whole-of-government’ approach that consistently integrates considerations of economics, security and values into decision-making. But also needed is a China strategy for the UK as a whole, which clarifies where government should make and mandate China-related decisions, and where others are better placed to do so.
4. Those who make the decisions need to be well-informed.
The UK will make better decisions on China when those making the decisions know more about China, about how it sees the world, about others’ experience of dealing with China, and about how China in turn reacts. China is unfamiliar, opaque, multifaceted and fast-changing. Good decisions draw on knowledge and experience rather than on misconceptions, guesswork and stereotypes. Yet a 2021 Higher Education Policy Institute report highlighted that there is a ‘lack of knowledge and understanding [about China] that would enable actors in the private and public spheres to craft the answers that are needed’. The Integrated Review committed to ‘invest in enhanced China-facing capabilities, through which we will develop a better understanding of China and its people’.
Three aspects merit greater attention. Firstly, there is a need to define the scope and nature of ‘China capabilities’ that would help different decision-makers in and out of government. This should include practical experience, such as contract negotiations, as much as academic and policy knowledge. Second, many, if not most, people who make decisions with a China dimension will not be, and will not need to be, China experts. They must, however, know enough to make good decisions and be able to access expert knowledge as needed. The government can help facilitate this access. Finally, there is scope to draw more systematically on the experience of others. The Chinese diaspora in the UK offers a broad range of useful perspectives. The UK can learn more from how other countries manage their own complex China relationships, such as Japan and Australia.
5. Strategy without resourcing and implementation is just wish-making.
Strategies often fail. Plans are written but not implemented. Successful strategies require objectives grounded in reality, supported with the right resourcing and organisational structures; clear responsibilities and accountabilities; incentives and sanctions to encourage action; and durable leadership commitment that adapts in the face of changing circumstances.
For the UK in relation to China, these conditions do not currently appear to be in place. The ISC China report found that ‘the slow speed at which strategies, and policies, are developed and implemented … leaves a lot to be desired’. It also rightly highlighted the need for longer-term planning and resource commitments. This in turn requires sufficient cross-party consensus for commitments to last through changes of government.
Resourcing for China has increased. In March, the government announced a doubling in 2024/25 of funding for its China Capabilities Programme. Richard Moore, head of the Secret Intelligence Service, recently stated that ‘we now devote more resources to China than anywhere else, reflecting China’s increasing global significance’. This is likely not enough, though limited public information makes it hard to judge. Indeed, there are good strategic arguments for not revealing publicly the resource levels behind some initiatives.
However, it is not a question of money alone. Improving coordination, communication and alignment across government remains a big task. This is as much as question of leadership focus and organisational effectiveness as resource levels per se.
Internationally, too, increased resources are needed. China is much more active on the global stage, putting increased time and effort into advancing its agenda in multilateral institutions and offering financial support to countries in the Global South in particular. There is increased contention and competition. Here, cooperation with others allows for burden-sharing, whether in addressing China’s efforts in the UN to redefine human rights or the implications of increased financial development assistance in the Pacific Islands. But more resources – both time and money – are needed if strategy is to be more than rhetoric.
6. Strategy requires learning and adaptation.
Strategy is not static. Broad objectives may remain constant, but prioritisation, detailed outcomes and how to achieve them will change. Strategy will also change, based on which policies work and which do not. As such, any detailed China strategy paper may quickly date. Strategy must learn and adapt rapidly to changed assessments and circumstances. It must these days consider a China with strong digital capabilities, but large structural economic problems, in a world of AI, rather than a high-growth China excelling in physical infrastructure.
Much of this learning will inevitably happen behind closed doors. However, external review and reflection – in parliament, in expert groups and in the broader community – is important too. A published China strategy can help anchor this debate, but it must not become a fixed baseline pursued for its own sake while the world changes.
China indeed has ‘implications for almost every area of government policy and the everyday lives of British people’. While the government has made substantial progress on its approach to this challenge, more needs to be done.
What matters more than having a strategy paper is a host of decisions in different domains, followed by resourcing, implementation and review. Reasonable people can disagree on what being ‘clear-eyed’ about China means in practice. This is not the work of government alone, even where China pursues its own ‘whole-of-state’ approach. Across the UK, better awareness is needed, both of the opportunities and the risks that China presents. This will allow people to strike the right balance between risk and return – and also determine where, on certain matters of security and values, there is no balance to be struck, and economic benefits must take a backseat. But without increased resources – both time and money – a better China strategy will remain an expression of hope rather than reality.
Senior Associate Fellow; Founding Director of the UK National Committee on China