‘UK’s approach to China robust’

Sunak rejects suggestion from Business and Trade Committee chairman, Labour MP Liam Byrne, that where allies acted on China, the UK was merely “thinking about it”…reports Asian Lite  News

The UK’s approach to China is “more robust” than most of its allies, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said.

It comes after some MPs criticised the response to cyber-attacks against the Electoral Commission and UK politicians, which the government has blamed on Beijing-linked hackers. Ministers are facing growing calls to designate China as a “threat”.

However, Downing Street has played down suggestions the government is preparing to do this. Appearing in front of senior MPs on the Commons Liaison Committee, Sunak defended the government’s approach.

He rejected a suggestion from Business and Trade Committee chairman, Labour MP Liam Byrne, that where allies acted on China, the UK was merely “thinking about it”.

Byrne highlighted how the US House of Representatives had passed a bill requiring TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDanceto sell its controlling stake in the social media app or see it banned in America.

However, the prime minister pointed to examples including European countries not removing Huawei equipment from their telecommunications networks and not placing similar restrictions on exports of sensitive technology to China.

He added: “I am entirely confident that our approach to dealing with the risk that China poses is very much in line with our allies and in most cases goes further in protecting ourselves.”

He added: “China represents the greatest state-based threat to our economic security.”

The government currently describes China as an “epoch-defining challenge” but some MPs, including former cabinet ministers Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Suella Braverman, want it to go further and formally label the country a “threat”.

On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden suggested this could happen.

He told the Commons “we are currently in the process of collective government agreement” over the issue and the country’s alleged involvement in the cyber-attacks “will have a very strong bearing on the decision that we make”.

However, asked on Tuesday whether ministers were planning to designate China a threat, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “There isn’t a mechanism under UK law or indeed in our G7 or Five Eyes countries [an intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States] that has a designation process like that.”

He added: “The integrated review has already set out the UK’s position in relation to China being a state-based threat to our economic security. And it set out a clear strategy to deal with the challenge that China presents.”

In response to calls to put China in the “enhanced” tier under the foreign influence registration scheme, he said the scheme was “in the process of being finalised and no countries have been specified yet.”

Specifying a country in the “enhanced tier” gives the power to require registration of activities of foreign government-controlled entities in the UK.

On Monday, the government announced sanctions on two Chinese nationals, as well as the China state-affiliated cyber espionage group Advanced Persistent Threat Group 31, over cyber-attacks on the Electoral Commission and 43 individuals including MPs and peers.

The cyber-attack on the Electoral Commission between August 2021 and October 2022 was one of the most significant in British history.

On Tuesday the charge d’affairs of the Chinese embassy was summoned to the Foreign Office over the cyber-attacks. Some of the MPs targeted have criticised the government’s response, with Sir Iain describing it as “like an elephant giving birth to a mouse”.

Another Conservative MP Tim Loughton described it as like turning up “at a gun fight with a wooden spoon”. The sanctions were part of coordinated action alongside the UK’s allies, with the United States charging seven alleged Chinese hackers on Monday.

China has rejected allegations of state involvement in the hacks.

Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian accused the UK and US of “politicising cyber security issues” and “smearing China”.

However, some frontbenchers are calling for more a more measured response. “Monday was significant as the first time China has ever been called out for a cyber attack against the UK,” said one cabinet minister. “But the likes of Iain Duncan Smith are never going to be satisfied until China is cut out of every aspect of British life — which is completely unrealistic.”

Industry executives have privately grumbled about a lack of clarity over the government’s approach.

“It feels like the government doesn’t know what to do about China,” said one senior business figure. “It’s all very well talking about our trade independence. But when it comes to things like white goods, we are completely dependent on imports from China. So it’s a dilemma, and no one has the answer.”

Sunak refused to be drawn at a meeting of the House of Commons liaison committee on whether Britain would follow the US in pushing for Chinese-owned ByteDance to divest from TikTok over security concerns on Tuesday.

However, he argued that regulations already in place — including controls on sensitive technologies to China and its National Security Act — were “more robust probably than what you’d find in any other country in the EU”.

The prime minister also noted that the UK was less dependent on China for trade than many of its allies, including Australia, Korea, Japan, the US and Germany.

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