What would a Labour Government mean for UK-China relations?

27 Mar 2024

When Catherine West MP, Shadow Asia Minister, travelled to Beijing last week, she told senior Chinese government figures and businesses that “The next Labour government will take a strong, clear-eyed and consistent approach to China”. However, the detail of that approach still remains to be seen.

In this report, DRD’s Jon McLeod and Charlie McAllister examine why a Labour government might be more hawkish on China.

This week, China’s campaign of cyberattacks in the UK has dominated the headlines and brought UK-China relations back to the forefront of political discussion.

Over the last 14 years, successive Conservative Governments have adopted a variety of stances on China, from the ‘golden era’ heralded by David Cameron to a number of recent challenges, including the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and cybersecurity risks, (including cyberattacks, concerns around 5G and potential threats posed by Chinese companies).

These challenges seem unlikely to go away any time soon, with deepening trade relationships with China, growing ties between UK and Chinese businesses, and a strong dependence on Chinese students in UK educational institutions. With a General Election looming, and Labour taking a significant lead in the polls, questions are now being asked about Labour’s foreign policy intentions, and specifically, how they plan on addressing these challenges.

What is Labour saying?

Arguably, on many of the most serious foreign policy issues over the last few years, Labour and the Conservatives have held broadly similar positions. The two main parties are united in their support for Ukraine, share broadly similar positions on Israel, and have similar stances on the UK’s relationship with NATO and the US.

The same can be said for UK-China relations.

Whilst Labour has criticised the Conservative toing and froing (or “Flip-flopping”) on China over the last 14 years, they have undergone a largely similar change. RUSI, for example, notes that David Cameron’s “softening of the UK’s approach to China started under the last Labour government”, and that “UK–China policy under Corbyn was noted by many as limited and lacklustre”.

Now, however, both parties are opting for a more balanced and nuanced approach. There is now a clear understanding of the need “to balance the need to engage with a major power whose actions on climate change, global poverty, and emerging technologies like AI…, while challenging its record on human rights and protecting UK assets, infrastructure and supply chains from dependency on China”.

The strategy outlined by David Lammy MP, Shadow Foreign Secretary, of “three Cs: compete, challenge, and cooperate”, is not all too different from the approach of James Cleverly MP, Foreign Secretary, of protecting national security, aligning cooperating with allies, and engaging directly with China.

As the understanding of the Chinese threat develops, so must Labour’s response. Labour is positioning itself as a Government in waiting, but if it is to live up to expectations, it will need a more concrete policy on how to deal with upcoming UK-China tensions for when it takes power.
Change is in the air

However, the current debate is evolving quickly, with the Times reporting that Ministers are poised to formally declare China a threat to Britain’s national security following cyber-campaigns aimed at UK democratic institutions and parliamentarians.

There was perhaps no better time for Catherine West MP’s (Shadow Asia Minister) visit last week to Beijing, in what was Labour’s first engagement with the Chinese government “since Keir Starmer became Labour leader”. She noted that issues of “human rights, national security, and interference in our democracy” was “something we will act on in government”.

Lammy has made similar remarks in the past, including a pledge that a Labour government would declare that China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims is a “genocide”. This would go beyond the Government’s description of events which stopped short of using the word.

It is also worth noting that the current debate means that adopting a more hawkish stance is likely to be politically advantageous for Labour. Iain Duncan Smith MP compared the Government’s two sanctions following the cyberattacks to “an elephant giving birth to a mouse”. The sentiment that the Government’s response could have been more robust was shared on both sides of the House.

Both the changing nature of the debate on China and the Shadow frontbench’s comments suggest an increasingly hawkish approach from the party and from parliament.

Lammy has promised that a Labour government would conduct a “full audit of the UK-China relationship”, ahead of developing its strategy. It will be interesting to note how Labour’s hawkish rhetoric is reflected in this audit and whether it provides more detail on the party’s plans to align this approach with other, more domestic policies, such as Reeves’s ‘securonomics’.

That said, it is worth noting that an audit wouldn’t be the first of its kind, with the cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, the committee with oversight of the UK’s Intelligence Community, publishing an in-depth report on Chinese interference as recently as July 2023.

Global and domestic challenges

However, while Labour might be sounding more hawkish, a significant reset in the relationship is likely to face challenges.

The UK is hardly the only country to be heading to the polls in 2024, and other elections are likely to have as big of an influence on UK foreign policy as the UK’s own elections, if not more. Elections in the US and the recent election in Taiwan are likely to have a significant impact on how Labour might approach UK-China relations, particularly if Donald Trump re-enters the White House.

There are also significant challenges closer to home. It almost goes without saying that China is a key trading partner for the UK. It was the UK’s 5th largest trading partner in 2023, accounting for 5.7% of total UK trade, and strong ties between UK and Chinese businesses. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the Government’s response to Chinese cyber campaigns caused concerns about its potential impact on trade relationships.

The UK relies on China in a number of industries. A good example of this are universities, which have come under fire recently for an over-reliance on Chinese students. This sort of integration will prove challenging for any party to handle.

What happens next?

The current challenge that China poses is likely to require the next Government take a more hawkish stance, whatever party takes power. Labour’s comments to date do demonstrate an understanding of this challenge, however the devil is likely to be in the detail as the task of addressing the threat that China poses is not a simple one.

As the understanding of the Chinese threat develops, so must Labour’s response. Labour is positioning itself as a Government in waiting, but if it is to live up to expectations, it will need a more concrete policy on how to deal with upcoming UK-China tensions for when it takes power.