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PM claims UK approach to China ‘more robust’ than allies

The UK’s approach to China is “more robust” than its allies, Rishi Sunak has claimed, as he continues to face calls to use more aggressive language to describe Beijing in the wake of two cyberattacks.

The prime minister said suggestions the government was not taking strong action against China were “completely and utterly wrong”.

Mr Sunak defended the government’s stance towards China while appearing at the Liaison Committee on Tuesday afternoon, where he faced questions from parliament’s select committee chairs.

Business and Trade Committee chair Liam Byrne challenged Mr Sunak that where allies acted on China, the UK was merely “thinking about it”.

But Mr Sunak claimed such an assertion was false, saying: “Our approach to China is undoubtedly more robust than, I’d say, most of our allies, in fact, actually.

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“I am entirely confident that our approach to dealing with the risk that China poses is very much in line with our allies and in most cases goes further in protecting ourselves.”

More on China

Mr Sunak’s appearance at the committee came after the government blamed China “state-affiliated actors” for two “malicious” cyberattack campaigns in the UK.

Two incidents

Making a speech in the Commons, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden revealed the two incidents involved an attack in 2021 on the Electoral Commission – responsible for overseeing elections and political finance – alongside targeted attacks against China-sceptic MPs.

According to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the incident at the commission, discovered in 2022, saw the Electoral Roll compromised, including the names and addresses of tens of millions of voters.

But “reconnaissance activity” in 2021, targeting the accounts of former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative education minister Tim Loughton, crossbench peer Lord Alton of Liverpool and SNP MP Stewart McDonald was unsuccessful.

Are these MPs really parliament’s best interrogators?

Jon Craig - Chief political correspondent

Jon Craig

Chief political correspondent

@joncraig

Job done. The prime minister will be pleased with how that went. No news. No gaffes. And not too tetchy. To be blunt, it was dull.

The highlights were Mr Sunak’s clashes with Labour’s Dame Diana Johnson and the SNP’s Joana Cherry on the government’s Rwanda policy.

He didn’t like it when Ms Cherry asked if he was proud of telling Tory MPs to vote against preventing Afghans who supported British forces in Afghanistan from being deported to Rwanda.

The closest Mr Sunak came to making news was in his comments on the two big foreign stories of this week: the UN Israel-Hamas ceasefire vote and Chinese cyber-hacking.

He stressed the need for more aid into Gaza and agreed with Tory MP Stephen Crabb that the UN ceasefire resolution perhaps ought to have included criticism of Hamas.

And on China, he claimed the UK’s approach was more robust tan other countries, prompting a clash with Labour’s Liam Byrne, who disputed that claim.

To be fair, he did confirm that the public could “safely assume” the pensions triple-lock would remain in place throughout the next parliament if the Tories win the election.

But that was as good as it got. The prime minister even had the brass neck to say he deplored leaks when asked about reports about the chancellor’s national insurance cut ahead of this month’s budget.

The session had begun with the gentlest of questions from former Treasury minister Harriet Baldwin, who asked: “How’s the economic strategy going?” It was so bland it could have been a planted question.

And the hearing ended with a rambling chat with committee chairman Sir Bernard Jenkin about reforming parliament to encourage more young people to engage in politics. That got nowhere.

In just over 90 minutes, the prime minister got off extremely lightly. If these are parliament’s best interrogators, Mr Sunak can rest easy as he begins his Easter break.

The government has said the attack on parliamentarians was carried out by the APT31 – a “China state-affiliated” group but less is known about who bears responsibility for the attack on the commission

However, the NCSC says it is “highly likely compromised by a China state-affiliated cyber entity”.

‘Like an elephant giving birth to a mouse’

Mr Dowden announced sanctions against a front company, Wuhan Xiaoruizhi Science and Technology Company, and two individuals, Zhao Guangzong and Ni Gaobin, who are linked to APT31.

But the response was immediately met with derision from Tory MPs, including Sir Iain, who said Mr Dowden’s statement was “like an elephant giving birth to a mouse”.

MPs within Mr Sunak’s party have urged him to upgrade the UK assessment of China from an “epoch-defining challenge” to a “threat” – something Mr Dowden suggested could be on the cards.

During the Liaison Committee session the prime minister highlighted how the UK had removed Huawei equipment from their telecommunications networks while European allies had not, and said the EU had not placed restrictions on exports of sensitive technology to China.

Read more:
China cyber attacks: ‘Olive’ flops in front of Tory backbenchers while his old boss shines
China cyber attacks a reminder Beijing poses ‘constant and sophisticated’ threat to western cybersecurity

He also argued that the UK was less dependent on China for trade than Australia, Korea, Japan, the US, and Germany and that there was a security agency dedicated to helping companies manage threats from states over espionage and IP threats.

China denial

China has firmly denied responsibility for the attacks and has accused the UK of “outright political manipulation”.

A spokesman said the UK had “falsely accused China of attempting to interfere with UK democracy”.

“We strongly urge the UK to immediately stop spreading false information about China, stop such self-staged, anti-China farces, and refrain from going further down the wrong path that leads only to failure.”

Sky News Source