Britain bares its teeth at China
Hans van Leeuwen

London | Britain looks to be taking a tougher line against China, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government joined a strongly worded statement on Hong Kong with Australia and reportedly began planning to push Chinese telco giant Huawei into the cold.

Mr Johnson’s government had been relatively quiet during the push last week by Australia, the US and the European Union to shine a light on China’s conduct in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak.

A scuffle in Hong Kong’s parliament after Beijing said it would introduce a national security law for Hong Kong. Getty

But suddenly the ground appears to be shifting. Britain is always more ready to confront China over Hong Kong – and on Friday (Saturday AEST) Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab joined Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne in a statement of “deep concern” at China’s proposed national security law for the autonomous region.

“Making such a law on Hong Kong’s behalf without the direct participation of its people, legislature or judiciary would clearly undermine the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’, under which Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy,” the three ministers’ statement said.

Meanwhile, the British media reported on Saturday that the Johnson government was shifting its position on Huawei’s involvement in its 5G network.

After two years of indecision, the government in January decided not to follow Australia and the US in banning Huawei from involvement in rolling out 5G, instead allowing its participation in the “edge” of the network, and putting a 35 per cent cap on how much of the infrastructure could be Huawei-sourced.

According to anonymous government briefings to the media, Britain will now look to drive down Chinese involvement to zero by 2023.

Mr Johnson “still wants a relationship with China but the Huawei deal is going to be significantly scaled back,” a “source” told Britain’s Daily Telegraph, often the newspaper of choice for intelligence-related leaks and briefings.

“Officials have been instructed to come up with a plan to reduce Huawei’s involvement as quickly as possible.”

China now features squarely in the trans-Atlantic relationship.

— Veerle Nouwens, Royal United Services Institute

Other media outlets quickly confirmed the story, and speculated that Mr Johnson had faced renewed American pressure ahead of a G7 summit hosted by President Donald Trump in mid-June, and as he tries to land a rapid free-trade agreement (FTA) with the US.

Washington was sharply critical of the original Huawei decision, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was more emollient in public than expected when he visited London shortly afterwards.

But London will surely have noticed Mr Pompeo’s effusive praise of Australia last week, following the Morrison government’s bruising battle with Beijing over a push at the World Health Assembly to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“China now features squarely in the trans-Atlantic relationship,” said Veerle Nouwens, a research fellow at the British security think tank RUSI.

“While Washington is taking a tough line in its China policy and wants allies to do the same, the UK still hopes to negotiate FTAs with both countries. It’ll have to carefully balance its relationship with both countries moving forward.”

Mr Johnson had already signalled that change was in the air during his weekly session of parliamentary questions on Wednesday.

He told a backbench Conservative MP that he shared concerns “about investment … about the buying up of UK technology by countries that… may have ulterior motives”.

“We are certainly bringing forward measures to ensure that we protect our technological base and … you’ll be hearing a lot more about that in the next few weeks,” he said.

The measures will also reportedly look to reduce British dependence on Chinese medical supplies.

“We’re looking at making sure that we have resilient supply chains around the world,” the Prime Minister’s spokesman later said.

“The first bit of the work is going on separately, so we are significantly increasing the domestic production of PPE [personal protective equipment].”

A group of several dozen Conservative backbenchers has been vocally resisting the Huawei policy, and trying to stiffen Britain’s resolve to confront China as a strategic threat.

“There has been a growing focus on China in the UK over the past few years,” Ms Nouwens said.

“Discussions around Hinkley Point [a Chinese-built nuclear power station], Huawei, and Hong Kong have been defining issues in the conversation, particularly in parliament.”

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Hans van Leeuwen covers British and European politics, economics and business from London. He has worked as a reporter, editor and policy adviser in Sydney, Canberra, Hanoi and London. Connect with Hans on Twitter. Email Hans at hans.vanleeuwen@afr.com

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