Report criticises 'incoherent' cross-government approach to China

MPs call for an unclassified version of government's China strategy to be published
Photo: Daniren/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

30 Aug 2023

The government needs to develop a "coherent" cross-department approach to relations with China, MPs have warned.

The Foreign Affairs Committee says the key to this will be to "urgently" publish an unclassified version of its China strategy to enable civil servants to effectively implement policy. In a report published today,  MPs on the committee have also called for the government to ensure all relevant ministers have been briefed on the higher security classification version of the strategy.

Committee chair Alicia Kearns said: “There is still too much unsaid. The confidential, elusive China strategy is buried deep in Whitehall, kept hidden even from senior ministers across government. How can those implementing policy – and making laws – do so without an understanding of the overall strategy?”

Government “should revisit this to ensure that all relevant government ministers have been read-in, otherwise cross-government implementation will be incoherent, as is too often demonstrated,” the committee said.

The MPs said it is “understandable that the government does not publish a complete policy towards the PRC [People's Republic of China] because awareness by the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] of some of its military or trade competitor strategies would undermine the effectiveness of the strategy”.

But they added that the failure to outline clear foreign policy, “let alone a cross-government stance towards China”, makes it difficult for the strategy to be complied with by both state and non-state actors, including civil servants, academics and businesses. The committee said it cannot judge whether the government’s strategy is “in any way effective or well designed” as it is not seen any version of the strategy nor been briefed on it.

The report, Tilting horizons: the Integrated Review and the Indo-Pacific, analyses the government’s renewed focus on the region since its 2021 Integrated Review refresh of security, defence, development and foreign policy. It says the refresh provides a “facile answer to some extent” by including a two-page section on the UK’s policy towards China that consists of protecting the UK against threats from the Chinese Communist Party, aligning with other countries to influence China’s actions in a favourable direction, and engaging with China on issues such as climate change and global health.

“It remains to be seen to what extent those who have been clamouring for the UK to publish a China policy — so they can know how to comply with it — will be satisfied by this,” the committee said.

“The current vacuum around the acceptable parameters for engagement with the PRC, and what partnerships or business ventures constitute a risk to critical national infrastructure or national security, gives those with hostile and malign motives, and profiteers a get out of jail free card and increased risk to UK PLC.”

It is “evidently possible” for the UK government to publish a public, unclassified version given Germany did so in July, the MPs added.

Publishing it would help avoid individuals or businesses “engaging unwittingly in activities which are contrary to the aims of the China strategy, or at worse knowingly engage in partnerships claiming in this vacuum to be able to plead ignorance”. The report also calls for the government to publish sector-specific guidance to support industries of critical national importance, national security, or data-intensive industries. However, the committee said the creation of an Investment Security Unit allowing businesses to obtain security advice from the government regarding potential partnerships, funding streams and activities was a positive development in this area.

The committee also raised concerns about the government’s preparedness for the threat that the Chinese Communist Party “could use economic coercion to influence UK decision making by targeting strategically critical sectors”.

It said the government is aware of this threat but “has not taken adequate action” to tackle it.

“It must work to identify which technologies, infrastructure and components the UK is most dependent on China for, and plan to mitigate dependencies,” the report said.

The report also calls for better cross-government and external agency coordination to mitigate the risk of technological dependence on China. Currently this is “uneven and disjointed”, the committee said.

A government spokesperson said: “The Integrated Review Refresh outlines clearly and in detail our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“The Foreign Secretary also set out the UK’s strategy on China in his Mansion House speech, including strengthening our national security protections and engaging where it is in the UK’s interests to do so. That is what he is now doing during his trip to China - the first Foreign Secretary to visit in five years.

“We are reviewing the report’s findings in detail and will respond in due course.”

The Foreign Affairs Committee report follows an inquiry by the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee which found a “lack of consistent and coherent policy on China” that was “creating uncertainty for the business community”.

The government’s strategy has also been recently criticised by the Intelligence and Security Committee, a joint Commons-Lords committee, which published a report on China policy in July.

The ISC said the greatest risk to the UK is China’s ambition to become a technological and economic superpower, on which other countries are reliant. It said tackling the China threat “requires the UK to have a clear strategy on China, which is forward thinking, long-term, joined up and utilises a ‘whole-of-government’ approach”.

“The UK is severely handicapped by the short-termist approach currently being taken,” the ISC said.

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