‘China threat’ emerges in elections from UK to Australia
It’s not just the economy. As fears of inflation and recession weigh heavily on voters’ minds, another issue is emerging in political campaigns from the UK and Australia to the US and beyond: the “China threat”. .
The two finalists vying to become Britain’s next prime minister, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, faced off in a televised debate last month over who would be tougher on China.
It’s a stark departure from outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘Sinophile’ business-oriented approach and part of a toughening anti-China rhetoric in many Western countries and other democracies, such as Japan, which manifests itself in the electoral campaigns.
For years, nations have sought to balance promoting trade and investment with the world’s second-largest economy with concerns about China’s projection of military power, espionage and its human rights record. .
The pendulum is swinging towards the latter, as evidenced by US, European, Japanese and Australian opposition to the threatening Chinese military exercises that followed US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last week. , and growing warnings from Western intelligence agencies about espionage and interference from Beijing. .
The change has made China a target for politicians seeking votes, as opinion polls show public sentiment in many democracies turning against China. Some candidates blame China for its economic difficulties at home in addition to posing a threat to the security of its neighbors and the rest of the world.
China featured prominently in Australia’s May election in which the Conservatives, who ultimately lost, tried to portray the opposition as unwilling to stand up to Beijing.
America’s growing rival on the world stage is also expected to feature in U.S. congressional races this fall, particularly in industrial Midwestern states, long after former President Donald Trump took a fierce anti-China stance. .
Many in Europe are also rebalancing their approach to China, although that did not figure significantly in elections in France this year and Germany in 2021.
Andreas Fulda, a University of Nottingham political scientist specializing in China, said British politicians “are more lucid about China” than their European neighbours.
“The UK has been paying close attention to what’s happening in Australia, and in many ways the debate here is way ahead of mainland Europe,” he said.
Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary and head of the Conservative Party leadership race, has talked about expanding what she calls a ‘freedom network’ so that democracies can counter China and Russia more effectively. . She says she will crack down on Chinese tech companies such as the owner of TikTok, the short-form video platform.
In his role as Britain’s chief diplomat, Truss sharply criticized China’s military actions after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, accusing Beijing of an “aggressive and far-reaching escalation” that “threatens(threatens) peace and stability in the region”.
Sunak, the former head of Britain’s treasury, has pledged to shut down the partially Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes that promote Chinese culture and language in British universities, lead an international alliance against Chinese cyber threats, and help businesses and British universities to counter Chinese espionage.
“I had a feeling of deja vu after leaving Australia,” said Ben Bland, director of the Asia-Pacific program at London’s Chatham House think tank, who previously worked at Sydney’s Lowy Institute. “There is a similar atmosphere with some politicians trying to deploy the Chinese threat as a domestic political tool.”
Bland described a sea change in the way politicians talk about China in the UK and Australia, moving from a focus on trade and business relations five years ago to seeing China “through the prism of a threat to national security and economic competitiveness”.
In Australia’s election, the Tories broke with a tradition of bipartisanship on critical national security issues to accuse the centre-left Labor Party of being likely to appease Beijing.
The bet fell short. Labour, whose victory ended nine years of Conservative rule, denied it would change its China policy and called Chinese military drills around Taiwan “disproportionate and destabilizing”.
“It’s not something that Australia alone is asking for,” said Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, adding that the whole region was concerned.
A Lowy Institute survey published in June found that Australians were increasingly concerned about their country’s biggest trading partner. Three-quarters of respondents said China was at least somewhat likely to become a military threat to Australia over the next 20 years, up 30 percentage points from 2018.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted the same month found negative views of China at or near historic highs in many of the 19 countries surveyed in North America, Europe and Asia.
Relations between London and Beijing have soured since President Xi Jinping secured a state visit in 2015 as the British government hoped to cement deals to give Britain a large pool of investment and China a better access to European markets.
Johnson, who took power in 2019, has always stressed that he is not a “reflex sinophobe” – but under pressure from the United States, his government barred Chinese companies from the UK’s 5G communications network. United. Britain has also taken in thousands of people from Hong Kong as Beijing restricts freedoms in the former British colony.
The head of intelligence agency MI6, Richard Moore, said last month that China had overtaken terrorism as the top priority, as British spies tried to figure out the threats Beijing’s growing assertiveness could pose .
“It feels like a really big moment, post-9/11,” Moore said.
The United States is also transferring intelligence assets to China.
Yet Chinese experts say much of the rhetoric of Western politicians is political grandstanding.
Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies, said none of the candidates seeking to become Britain’s next prime minister had formulated a coherent China policy. The winner will be announced on September 5 after a vote by the Conservative Party.
“The indications are that (Sunak’s) words on China politics are not based on any kind of strategy,” Tsang said. “Neither Truss has articulated a proper strategy for China, despite being the current foreign minister.
China pushed back against the growing hostility.
“I would like to make it clear to some British politicians that making irresponsible remarks about China, including hype about the so-called ‘China threat’, cannot solve its own problems,” the spokesman said. Foreign Ministry Zhao Lijian after the Sunak-Truss debate.
In the United States, both major political parties have denounced China during the election campaign, particularly in the Midwest, where Chinese imports are responsible for the loss of manufacturing jobs.
Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz ran thousands of TV ads this spring that mentioned China. In Ohio, Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan said in an ad, “It’s us against China.”
Polls suggest that neither China nor foreign policy in general is a priority issue for most American voters. But political strategists believe China is likely to remain a powerful political issue in November’s U.S. congressional elections, as candidates seek to tie China to America’s economic challenges.
In Asia, it was more nuanced.
Japanese voters have grown more supportive of a stronger military after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions over Taiwan.
In South Korea’s presidential election in March, candidates disagreed on how to handle the escalating rivalry between two important partners, China and the United States.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who narrowly won, vowed to build a stronger alliance with the United States, while his liberal opponent pleaded for a balancing act. But since taking office in May, Yoon has avoided upsetting China, a major export market.
He did not meet Pelosi when she came to South Korea from Taiwan, although he spoke to her by phone, and her government has refrained from criticizing Chinese military moves around the self-governing island.
Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London, Ken Moritsugu in Beijing, Steve Peoples in New York, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report .