Cabinet Office and FCDO ‘grappling’ over China policy, says ex-perm sec

Simon McDonald tells committee departments each have claim to lead on UK approach to world’s second-largest economy
Simon McDonald appears before the House of Lords' International Relations and Defence Committee on 18 March

By Jim Dunton

19 Mar 2021

The Cabinet Office and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office are locked in a power struggle over which should have the policy lead for the UK’s relationship with China, a former permanent secretary has told a House of Lords committee.

Lord Simon McDonald, who was perm sec at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until its merger with the Department for International Development last year, told members of the International Relations and Defence Committee that responsibility for China policy was an ongoing issue for Whitehall.

“The system is still grappling with how to organise policy overall in relation to China,” McDonald told yesterday’s hearing. 

“I believe there are two basic models and we still haven’t decisively come down in favour of one or the other.

“One is to have a unit in the Cabinet Office, in the national security secretariat, bringing everything in. The other – and I declare my interest as a former permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office –  is to have the department which has most of the expertise as the lead department, and for that department to have a unit pulling in necessary other expertise from other parts of Whitehall.”

He added: “I know you’re looking at organisational points and that is still something to resolve.”

McDonald said the FCO’s swift policy response towards Russia following 2018’s Novichok poisonings in Salisbury was an argument in favour of it having the policy lead for China. 

Former cabinet secretary and national security adviser Lord Mark Sedwill also gave evidence to Thursday’s session on the UK’s security and trade relationship with China.

He told peers that he believed the UK’s policy towards China had improved over the course of the last decade, however he acknowledged that there had been times when parts of government had been at odds with each other.

“China presents a complex series of challenges,” he said. “But to put it very crudely, essentially we have been, over that decade, trying to pursue our national security concerns and interests as well as trying to pursue our economic interests. And there have been periods when – within Whitehall – those communities have not operated as effectively as they should have, not communicated effectively with each other.”

However he added that Whitehall had now manged to bring the national security and economic communities closer together.

Sedwill told peers that there were areas in which the UK and China could work together and flagged the environment as one area in which Beijing “clearly” wanted to work with London. 

But he said the UK government had to accept that China was “fundamentally an authoritarian regime” that was strengthening its relationship with Russia, trying to strengthen its relationship with other authoritarian regimes around the world and extending its influence into the South China Sea.

This was “always going to be a very severe constraint on our ability to work together and a significant constraint on China’s view of the UK as a potential partner,” he said.

Elsewhere in Thursday’s session, peers asked McDonald and Sedwill for their assessment of the government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which was published on Tuesday.

McDonald described it as a “good, solid comprehensive document” but said he believed “prioritisation” was an issue.

“We are acquiring and acquiring without ditching anywhere,” he said. “Real life tends to be our guide, real life makes us choose, so I think it will be a perfectly workable document.”

McDonald said former national security adviser Lord Peter Ricketts had made the point that the review added five new priorities to the 15 existing ones.

Sedwill told the session that  prioritisation was “always difficult” in documents like the integrated review “because of the obvious difficulties when you de-prioritise”.

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