British PM Sunak says ‘golden era’ of UK-China relations is over

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said China poses a “systemic” challenge to UK values and interests as his government condemned Beijing after a BBC journalist was beaten while covering Shanghai protests.

In his first major foreign policy speech, Sunak said the so-called “golden era” of UK relations with China was “over, along with the naive idea that trade would automatically lead to social and political reform”.

The United Kingdom would “need to evolve our approach to China” as a result, he said in his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London, adding that Beijing was “consciously competing for global influence using all the levers of state power”.

“Let’s be clear, the so-called ‘golden era’ is over, along with the naive idea that trade would lead to social and political reform,” Sunak said, a reference to former Finance Minister George Osborne’s description of Sino-British ties in 2015.

His government will prioritise deepening trade and security ties with Indo-Pacific allies, he said, adding that “economics and security are indivisible” in the region.

Some in Sunak’s Conservative Party have been critical of the prime minister, regarding him as less hawkish on China than his predecessor Liz Truss.

While running for the top job against Liz Truss, he promised to get tough on China if he won, calling the Asian superpower the “number one threat” to domestic and global security.

However, a planned meeting between Sunak and China’s President Xi Jinping at this month’s G20 summit in Bali fell through, and last week London banned Chinese-made security cameras from sensitive government buildings.

“We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism,” he said, referring to the BBC statement that one of its journalists had been assaulted by Chinese police.

“Of course, we cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs — to global economic stability or issues like climate change. The US, Canada, Australia, Japan and many others understand this too.”

The speech came as tensions were further strained between the two nations after Ed Lawrence, working in China as an accredited BBC journalist, was arrested at a COVID lockdown demonstration in Shanghai and detained for several hours.

The UK public broadcaster says he was assaulted and kicked by police.

After his release, Lawrence tweeted on Monday to thank his followers, adding he believed “at least one local national was arrested after trying to stop the police from beating me”.

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly called the incident “deeply disturbing”.

“Media freedom and freedom to protest must be respected. No country is exempt,” he tweeted.

“Journalists must be able to do their job without intimidation.”

Hundreds of people took to the streets in China’s major cities on Sunday in a rare outpouring of public anger against the state over its dogged commitment to zero COVID.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday that Lawrence had not identified himself as a journalist.

“Based on what we learned from relevant Shanghai authorities, he did not identify himself as a journalist and didn’t voluntarily present his press credentials,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian.

He told international media to “follow Chinese laws and regulations while in China”.

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