UK China Policy Under Labour: More Continuity than Change? - SOAS China Institute

//UK China Policy Under Labour: More Continuity than Change?

UK China Policy Under Labour: More Continuity than Change?

Photo credit: Keir Starmer (Flickr) / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed

By Gray Sergeant | 09 November 2023

If it wasn’t for the violence in the Middle East, matters beyond Britain’s borders may well have been completely missing from Labour Leader Keir Starmer’s Annual Conference speech. Even on the Conference fringe, little was said about a future Labour government’s foreign policy. Moreover, as other observers have noted, what was said was not all that different from what the current Conservative Government is pursuing.


This perception may irk the current Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, who is keen to stress the differences between the current Conservative government and his mission to reconnect Britain, including on China policy.


Lammy outlined his overall approach to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) earlier this year in a Fabian pamphlet. A Labour government’s strategy would be guided by three Cs: compete, challenge, and cooperate. Elaborating on this alliteration, the Shadow Foreign Secretary wrote:

‘We will prioritise Britain’s national security above all else. We will stand firm on human rights. However, we also recognise it is important that the UK engages with China where it is in our interests to do so – whether on climate change, trade or global health.’

Yet, readers of the UK Government’s recently refreshed Integrated Review will no doubt notice striking similarities between these Cs and the three words which currently define Britain’s approach to the PRC: protect, align (with allies), and engage. Even engagement is caveated by both the opposition and the government as needing to be consistent with British interests.


When challenged on this similarity during a Chatham House fringe event at the Conference, Lammy did not concede this to be the case. Yet neither did he point to an area or policy where Labour would diverge from the Conservatives. Instead, the Shadow Foreign Secretary spoke of the need for consistency while in office, which he believes has been sorely lacking over the last 13 years.


If Lammy had wanted to offer something more concrete, he could have highlighted his commitment to declaring Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide. Asked by POLITICO earlier this year whether a future Labour government would do this, the shadow foreign secretary said ‘yes’, later clarifying that ‘we would act multilaterally with our partners’.


This would be a significant departure from the stance taken by the governing Conservatives, who, while acknowledging widespread human rights abuses in the region, have restated the UK’s longstanding position that it is up to a competent court to make such a determination.


Should Lammy’s failure to repeat this policy be taken as a U-turn or an attempt to create some wriggle room? Is this a harbinger of a future Labour Government’s approach to human rights elsewhere, for example, in Hong Kong or Tibet? After all, it is much easier to speak out in opposition when there are few consequences for such actions. If so, the differences between the two main parties may be even narrower.


Much has been said about Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’ ‘securonomics’ and her commitment to strengthening the UK’s ability to withstand global shocks. As she noted during her conference speech: ‘disruption to supply chains that span the globe has revealed the perils of prizing only the fastest and the cheapest’. Previously, Reeves has also warned of the UK’s over-reliance on the PRC. Yet, while tackling such problems might come more naturally to a less laissez-faire Labour Government, such thinking is not currently absent in Whitehall.


On the Indo-Pacific tilt, Labour has been (perhaps naturally) less gung-ho than the Conservatives, who have sought to realise their Global Britain agenda following Brexit. In his conference speech, Lammy did not mention the region but instead stressed that improving trade and cooperation with Europe was his priority. Likewise, his colleague, Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey, has been unapologetic in promoting his NATO-first strategy.


However, on further inspection, Labour isn’t so anti-tilt. While initially highly critical of the 2021 integrated review’s focus on the region, labelling it as one of the document’s ‘fundamental flaws’, Healey now promises to ‘build on [the current government’s] commitment to the Indo-Pacific’. Indeed, in the intervening years, Labour has supported the Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan, which has increased bilateral defence ties, and AUKUS, which, although unspoken, is a response to growing PRC power in the region. During one fringe, John Healey expressed much enthusiasm for the trilateral security partnership with the Americans and Australians and its second pillar, which promises joint development of advanced capabilities and the further sharing of technology.


While some in the Shadow Cabinet may wish to highlight how they would interact differently with the world when it is in government, on China policy, the Labour Party are, however, broadly in the same place as the Conservatives – whatever three words they choose to embody their approach. This might not be good for electioneering (not that there are many votes in foreign policy anyway). Yet, this continuity will provide some comfort to Britain’s allies, who are also concerned about the challenges of an increasingly assertive PRC. For them, little change under Starmer would be welcome and certainly better than the radically different approach to international affairs proposed by Labour at the previous two General Elections.

Gray Sergeant is a Research Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy, where he focuses on the UK’s China policy, Taiwan and cross-strait relations. He is also a PhD candidate in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics. His academic work explores Anglo-American diplomatic relations towards the People’s Republic of China during the early Cold War.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.