Boris Johnson has been accused of “grasping naivety” over his approach to China in a landmark foreign policy review, as hawkish Tory MPs called for a tougher Government stance.
The Prime Minister on Tuesday published his post-Brexit vision for “Global Britain”, setting out a 114-page strategy for defence, security and development policy over the next decade.
China was described as a “systemic challenge” and the “biggest state-based threat” to the UK’s economic security, but the review also called for deeper trade links and more cooperation with Beijing on climate change and pandemic preparedness.
A series of senior Conservatives lined up in the Commons to voice stern warnings over the tone and substance of the review’s verdicts on China.
Sir Julian Lewis, chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, said the approach suggested “the grasping naivety of the Cameron-Osborne years still lingers on” in some quarters of Government.
Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, expressed regret that the strategy had not called out China “for the geo-strategic threat that it is”.
Jeremy Hunt, former Tory foreign secretary, said he was “worried” about designating China “simply as a systemic challenge given the terrible events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang”, where the Chinese Communist Party has been accused of grave human rights abuses.
The document’s approach to China was summarised as “pretty much business as usual” by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (Ipac).
He told The Telegraph: “What are we going to do about China’s insatiable ambition to become completely dominant?”
The Prime Minister hit back against critics, insisting it was a “mistaken” view to “call for a new Cold War on China” or to argue for the UK to cut off its economy from Beijing entirely.
Appraisals of the threat posed by China will be kept under review, he signalled, as he characterised his approach to Beijing as “balanced”.
The Prime Minister’s brother Lord Johnson of Marylebone, described it as a “have-your-cake-and-eat-it policy towards Beijing”, however.
The strategy is likely to gain a warm reception in Beijing, suggested Tom Tugendhat, Tory chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee. The regime will be “pleased there isn’t direct criticism of China, that will leave them relieved”, he said.
The wide-ranging review, billed as the most comprehensive overhaul of British foreign policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall, warned that the old international order is crumbling.
“A defence of the status quo is no longer sufficient for the decade ahead”, it stated, and declared that the UK must become “match-fit for a more competitive world”.
It named Russia as “the most acute direct threat to the UK”, and outlined Britain’s relationships with the US and Europe, including the Nato alliance, as the cornerstone of the nation’s security.
The review revealed plans for Britain to increase its nuclear arsenal from a cap of 180 warheads to 260, a 40 per cent rise. The UK could conduct a nuclear strike if faced with a threat from devastating “emerging technologies”, it warned.
A Government source said this included “game changers” such as cyber, AI, encryption and laser directed energy weapons. The move was branded “provocative” by Tory MP Mr Ellwood.
Mr Johnson also reiterated his plan to restore the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid, but ruled out a vote on the controversial move to cut the budget to 0.5 per cent of GNI this year.
An awkward leaked tape that emerged on Tuesday threatened to undermine the review’s assertion that Britain would be a “force for good” in the world by “supporting open societies and defending human rights”, however.
Dominic Raab was recorded telling officials that Britain should pursue trade deals with nations that do not meet human rights standards, according to HuffPost UK.
“We ought to be trading liberally around the world. If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future,” Mr Raab said in the leaked tape.
A Foreign Office spokesman said the audio had been “deliberately and selectively clipped to distort” his remarks.
Mr Raab also said in his address to diplomats that the UK always stands up for human rights and is in a “better position to do that” when it engages with nations.
On Wednesday, at the Aspen Security Forum, the Foreign Secretary will frame the Prime Minister’s review as a “moral compass” to guide the UK in the decade ahead.
Mr Raab will also warn that democracy is “in retreat”, highlighting forecasts showing that autocracies are on track to become collectively richer than the world’s democracies.
A Defence Command paper setting out a generational upgrade to Britain’s Armed Forces, which will include cutting some legacy platforms as well as investing in new technologies, will be published next Monday.