UK PM rivals head into primetime TV debate with tough talk on China

4. UK Debate
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (left) and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak faced off on Monday for the first time in a televised debate. (Photo: AFP)

LONDON — Britain’s two prime ministerial contenders were set on Monday to go head-to-head for the first time in a televised debate after a weekend of tough talking on China.اضافة اعلان

In response to criticism by Conservative leadership favorite Liz Truss, rival Rishi Sunak announced plans to crack down on Beijing’s influence, calling it the “number-one threat” to domestic and global security.

China’s state-run Global Times has previously said former finance minister Sunak was the only candidate in the contest with “a clear and pragmatic view on developing UK-China ties”.

The Daily Mail, which has come out for Foreign Secretary Truss in the race to succeed Boris Johnson, called this “the endorsement that nobody wanted”.

Sunak’s proposals include the closure of all 30 Confucius Institutes in Britain.

The Beijing-backed schools teach students about Chinese language and culture, but critics argue they are propaganda fronts for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Sunak also promised to “kick the CCP out of our universities”, by forcing higher education establishments to disclose foreign funding of more than £50,000, and reviewing research partnerships.

Britain’s domestic spy agency MI5 would be used to help combat Chinese espionage, and he would look to build “NATO-style” international cooperation to tackle Chinese threats in cyberspace.

China’s foreign ministry said in response that UK politicians should not “talk about China at every turn and make irresponsible remarks such as the so-called ‘China threat theory’, which cannot solve their problems”.

‘Magic money tree’

Truss has accused Sunak of being soft on both China and Russia when he was finance minister, after he reportedly raised economic concerns when Johnson pushed for tough sanctions following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

His toughened line on China came ahead of Monday’s BBC television debate, to be held at 9pm (8pm GMT), as he looks to claw ground back from Truss.

Opinion polls put her well ahead among the roughly 200,000 grassroots Tory members who will decide the contest, after she and Sunak emerged as the run-off candidates in a series of votes by MPs.

The winner will be announced on September 5.

Truss has vowed immediate tax cuts while Sunak has stressed the need to tame decades-high inflation first, as both candidates claim to be the political heirs of 1980s prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

The main opposition Labor party, which is leading in polls but may have to wait until 2024 for the next general election, is looking to capitalize on fallout from the bitter Tory battle.

In a speech Monday, Labor leader Keir Starmer said Sunak was “the architect of the cost-of-living crisis” while Truss was “the latest graduate from the school of magic money tree economics”.

He added their BBC debate would showcase “a clear contrast between my Labor party and the Thatcherite cosplay on display”.

‘State-based threat’

The candidates’ foreign policy stances will likely feature in the primetime TV event, alongside a raft of domestic issues.

Truss has similarly urged a tougher approach to adversaries, calling for the G7 to become an “economic NATO” against Chinese threats and warning Beijing of sanctions if it does not play by international rules.

Her allies hit out at Sunak for not doing more when he was chancellor of the exchequer, before his resignation earlier this month over Johnson’s scandal-hit leadership helped spark the downfall of the outgoing premier.

“Over the last two years, the treasury has pushed hard for an economic deal with China ... despite China brutally cracking down on peaceful democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, illegally occupying the South China Sea, committing genocide on the Uyghurs,” said former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.

“After such a litany, I have one simple question: where have you been over the last two years?”

But Truss was also in Johnson’s cabinet when intelligence agencies repeatedly warned of China’s influence.

In March last year, the government’s “integrated review” of security, defense, and foreign policy called China “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security”.

But the review also stressed the need for engagement on trade and investment.

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