“You’re about to see a quite radical change in Britain’s China policy,” says Conservative MP and China-watcher Tom Tugendhat.
“I think you’re going to see Boris Johnson and the National Security Council looking hard at not just how we ‘do China’ in general, but actually very specifically at things like the Huawei decision and the Sizewell and Bradwell nuclear power stations.”
If Johnson really has shifted the China strategy, Washington and Canberra can take a morsel of credit. But perhaps the lion’s share goes to the Conservative Party’s increasingly hawkish backbench, from where a group of outspoken Tory MPs has doggedly thumped the tub and won an ever-increasing base of support.
These missionaries in late April coalesced into a formalised faction called the China Research Group (CRG), which aims to do for China policy what eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group did for Brexit policy: organise the cavalry, channel and focus its energies, and tilt the political battlefield.
The CRG ringleader is Tugendhat, a former army intelligence officer in his late 40s. Only five years an MP, he was expected to surge into the ministry but has instead found his calling as chairman of parliament’s influential foreign affairs committee – a handy pulpit.
Tugendhat has fretted for several years about the Huawei issue and its potential impact on the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership with Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand. But it has been a long slog to get the sluggish public debate moving.
His co-founder is Neil O’Brien, an MP in his early 40s who grabbed a safe seat in Theresa May’s 2017 election debacle. He ran a couple of highly influential think tanks – the moderately eurosceptic, agenda-setting Open Europe, then the centre-right Tory brains trust Policy Exchange – and was an economic adviser to Chancellor George Osborne and then to PM May.
He makes the same point as Tugendhat: the ‘rising China’ debate in Britain just isn’t as public and robust as it is in Australia and the US.
“We’ve had a few things like the Huawei debate in the UK that have seemed to come out of nowhere. We want to avoid being in that situation again, where the conversation is a reactive one and things just appear – we want to try to move to a longer view,” O’Brien says.
The CRG is going to operate like an in-house think tank, they say: organising events and talks, distributing their own and others’ research, keeping subscribers up to date on the latest news and developments, stimulating debate on the floor of parliament and beyond.
They don’t say so, but behind the scenes there will likely be the usual quiet conversations in parliamentary corridors and ministerial offices.
It’s not hawkish, it’s being more responsible. It’s being more aware of the consequences of dependence on a single one-party state.
— Tom Tugendhat, Conservative MP
The core group includes a former adviser to Boris Johnson from his time as London Mayor, rookie MP Anthony Browne. There’s also a party eminence grise, Damian Green, and a collection of up-and-coming neophytes with backgrounds in ministerial suites.
“By joining those different groups together, we demonstrate to the government that we’re not some weird clique of outsiders but we’re actually in the mainstream, and I think that really helps,” Tugendhat says.
Unlike in Washington, there’s no badge of honour in Westminster in being called a “China hawk” – and both Tugendhat and O’Brien reject the label.
“It’s not hawkish, it’s being more responsible. It’s being more aware of the consequences of dependence on a single one-party state,” says Tugendhat.
“We need to work together with China, but we need to work together with China from a position where we’re not totally dependent on China for essentials, which influences everything else.”
O’Brien agrees, and also rejects the received wisdom that Britain is having to weigh up security risks against economic benefits, and make a trade-off.
“There are two different conversations,” he says. The economic one is how to tackle the state subsidies and support, the forced technology transfers, the industrial espionage, the intellectual property violations.
“You hope that with other allies you can try to discourage them from doing that. Or else are they going to keep doing it and you insulate yourself against it with countermeasures,” he says.
The security question is “how you best discourage aggressive or adventurist moves in terms of their foreign policy”, and how like-minded countries stick together so that when one of their number, like Australia, is targeted aggressively, it is not isolated.
Tugendhat’s priority, which will likely soon surface in the Johnson government’s own pronouncements, is to reduce Britain’s enfeebling dependence on Chinese goods and capital.
“We shouldn’t be dependent on China for essentials like PPE [personal protective equipment for health workers]. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t buy PPE from China, but it shouldn’t be the only place we get stuff from. The same is true for telecoms, or nuclear power,” he says.
“What I’m talking about is making sure that we have strategic independence – possibly by being more dependent on other free states like Japan, or Germany, or Canada – to be able to take the kinds of decisions that we think are in our best interests, and not to be forced into taking decisions that we know are not.”
The arrival of the CRG is good news for the Morrison Government. Its members are keenly aware of the debate Down Under – as a new MP Tugendhat visited Canberra, Sydney and Adelaide as an official guest of government in 2016 – and they want to work with Australia and other friends and allies.
“Do you want to have democracies in the G7 and beyond working together more actively to co-ordinate what they do on China? It just seems like a good idea,” O’Brien says.