During the upcoming televised debate, British Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak, who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Boris Johnson’s government, is expected to promise resolute action against China, which he accuses of “being the biggest long-term threat to the UK.”
Claiming that Beijing is now “infiltrating our universities” and “stealing our technology,” racist scaremongering talking points which originated from the Trump administration, Sunak will call for strengthening NATO cooperation against China and will pledge to close all 30 Confucius institutes in the country (which teach Chinese language but have been frequently and baselessly accused of espionage and political interference).
To most Tory hawks, however, Sunak’s rhetoric isn’t convincing. Only as recently as January did he in fact vow to deepen business ties between China and the UK. His change of course is blatantly motivated by his desire to become the leader of the party and pander to a right-wing populist base who overwhelmingly favour his opponent Liz Truss, who models herself quite explicitly after Margaret Thatcher. As the first ever ethnic minority candidate for Conservative leadership, it isn’t rocket science to see why he is at a disadvantage in such circumstances, a sad but uncomfortable truth.
With Sunak’s previous positions on China also being fairly reasonable, this has also quickly turned into a line of attack against him by the right-wing press, with the Daily Mail recently claiming he was supported by China’s Global Times, which, it said, was “the endorsement nobody wanted.”
However, nobody would seriously think that Sunak is going to ‘out-hawk’ Truss, who has been fanatical in her confrontational approach to diplomacy against both China and Russia, and her zealous obsession with democracy – or rather, the rhetoric construct of “democracy” so often used as a rallying cry by Western leaders.
For Britain as a whole, this is disastrous news, but few people will be realizing it. Despite talk of “global Britain” and “free trade,” whoever should succeed Boris Johnson (and it will probably be Truss) will put Britain on a collision course with the world’s second-largest economy, the largest in terms of imports and exports, despite the lingering impacts of Brexit, and of course whilst simultaneously pursuing an aggressive proxy war in Ukraine, where Truss wants nothing less than the defeat of the Russian state. One might pause and ask, what on Earth has gone wrong with British foreign policy? In light of all this, and of Brexit, how could it have become so unhinged and self-defeating? It is demonstrative of the sheer madness which has captured the political mainstream in the light of Brexit.
Modern Britain has always, at every point in history, been arrogant and aggressive, completely unrepentant of its imperial legacy. Attributing Brexit as the starting point of such unbridled chauvinism might lead one to forget about the destruction of Iraq, Libya and Syria, and of course Britain’s continuing toadyism to American foreign-policy preferences and clear lack of independence in its own direction. After all, the United Kingdom has on paper participated in every single US-led war after World War II. The sole exception was Vietnam, thanks to Harold Wilson, a Labour Prime Minister who truly defined the “swinging sixties” in Britain and refused to assist. But he was the exception.
Thus, whilst it was always there, Brexit has manifested itself as probably the highest and most chauvinistic form of Anglophone exceptionalism and ideological elitism yet, specifically because it has suffocated the post-war debate concerning Britain’s post-imperial identity and the bid to be part of Europe. Instead of moving on from the past, it has doubled down on it, and in turn has merged with a brand of extreme neoconservatism to become even more subservient to the United States and wage hyper-aggression against certain countries, in this case Russia and China, in the name of British civilisation. Any pragmatism, any reason, balance and humility that might have otherwise restrained Conservative politicians has evaporated in the name of populism.
Now we’re at the stage where an Indian-origin British politician feels he can solicit political gain for himself by weaponizing fear, hate and scaremongering against Chinese people, betraying the diverse and open country where his parents settled and which allowed him to become so successful. It is a sorry state of affairs, and this aggressive pursuit of burning bridges and geopolitical confrontation will undoubtedly, as it has already, place further strain on the British economy, already beset by surging inflation, shrinking incomes, growing industrial unrest and eye-watering inequality. While of course, Liz Truss looks to be an almost inevitable victor, the fact someone like her is in this position speaks volumes about not her ascent, but about Britain’s descent. If you thought Boris Johnson was bad (he was personally incompetent but politically restrained by the standards of others), things are about to get a whole lot worse. On multiple fronts, we’re going to see the UK now take the deep turn of right-wing regression the US has been experiencing.