In the 2023 Integrated Review Refresh, the UK Government set out a three pronged approach to China: “protect,” “align,” and “engage.” This approach aims to balance competing and cooperating with China. Though China’s global importance makes cooperation necessary, some of the UK Government’s broader foreign policy aims, such as ensuring resilience domestically, building relations in the Indo-Pacific, and upholding human rights may conflict with attempts to increase cooperation. It is therefore worth examining how compatible the UK’s stance on China is with other foreign policy goals by considering the implications cooperating with China has had and could have on issues such as the resilience of the UK’s civil nuclear infrastructure, the effectiveness of the UK’s sanctions regime on Russia, and the development of relations with Indo-Pacific countries.

Executive summary
According to the 2023 Integrated Review Refresh, the UK will approach China with the aim of protecting security interests and working with like-minded partners, whilst simultaneously engaging with China through strengthening diplomatic contact with the aim of addressing global issues such as climate change, as well as pursuing a positive trade and investment relationship. Though there are merits to this approach, and the rationale behind it is sound, it needs to be executed carefully to avoid hindering the pursuit of other foreign policy goals, including building resilience, increasing the UK’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region, and upholding human rights.

China’s importance in global affairs merits a more nuanced approach. In areas such as climate change and pandemic preparedness, cooperating with China will be highly beneficial. Such engagement is important for preventing the escalation of conflicts in East Asia, such as in the Taiwan Strait and South China sea, as well as being important for facilitating cooperation with those countries who do not wish to be drawn into a West versus China conflict.

However, the UK Government needs to ensure that engagement does not take precedence over other foreign policy goals, such as national security. In areas such as civil nuclear power, the UK Government’s desire for a stronger investment relationship risks conflicting with the aim of building the UK’s resilience by involving firms linked to the Chinese government in the development of crucial nuclear power infrastructure.

The UK Government appears to be attempting to separate the UK’s economic relationship with China with other important issues, such as the war in Ukraine and upholding of human rights. This approach however ignores the reality that economic and security issues are connected. Economic engagement should also be treated as an opportunity to push China to act in accordance with international law and principles. If the UK Government fails to show a willingness to prioritise its commitments to international law and human rights over economic engagement, then such an approach risks hindering the deepening of Indo-Pacific ties, including the UK’s crucial alliance with the US, which has become increasingly important for the security of the UK in Europe in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and for the UK’s efforts to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific.

Lastly, the UK Government must not forget its commitment to human rights when engaging with China. If the Government does not engage carefully with China, this may enable China to utilise its global influence to avoid accountability and culpability for its human rights abuses, such as its treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and imprisonment of activists in Hong Kong.

The UK has been attempting to ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific since 2021, with the publishing of its Integrated Review. Two years later, this position was revised, with the publication of the Review Refresh 2023 and its vision of a new approach to engagement with China. Moreover, this was conducted alongside the then-Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s visit to Beijing, implying that the UK Government wished to return to the ‘Golden Era’ of UK-China relations. Yet this comes at a time of heightened competition between the West and China. Newly appointed Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron, who oversaw the ‘Golden Era’ during his former tenure as Prime Minister (2010-2016), has stated that relations cannot return to that point. It is therefore important to analyse how the UK Government is balancing engagement with China alongside other foreign policy aims, and consider the compatibility of this engagement approach with other foreign policy objectives as the Government continues to attempt to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Examining the compatibility of the UK’s stance on China with broader foreign policy aims
Overview of the UK Government’s China Policy
The 2023 Integrated Review Refresh (IR23) outlined a China policy which is based on three strands: ‘protect’, ‘align’, and ‘engage [1].’ This approach will involve simultaneously improving security protections, deepening cooperation with allies and a wider group of partners, and engaging with China [2]. The aim of this approach is to address security concerns, whilst recognising China’s importance when tackling global issues, and leaving open the possibility of a strong trade and investment relationship. However there is a balance that needs to be struck between cooperation and competition in order to successfully pursue the UK’s foreign policy goals. Whilst engagement is important and will yield benefits, it must be carefully managed, otherwise it may hinder the effective pursuit of other foreign policy goals, namely ensuring national security, enforcing sanctions, building Indo-Pacific ties, and upholding human rights. The UK Government was already criticised for using a ‘have its cake and eat it’ approach to China in the 2021 Review of Defence, Security and Foreign Policy as regards balancing economic engagement with UK values and interests [3]. Given the response to then-Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s visit to Beijing, this criticism has not been properly addressed [4]. The Government must evaluate its approach to ensure that engagement with China contributes to rather than contradicts UK foreign policy aims. There is a risk that in engaging with China without sufficiently challenging it, that the UK will be conducting diplomacy on China’s terms. China bases its diplomacy on the pursuit of ‘win-win’ relationships, meaning it is more than willing to seek cooperation on issues where it can also benefit and does not needlessly seek competition [5]. However, this also means China prefers to conduct more issue-specific diplomacy, emphasising areas where both parties can benefit and showing reluctance to address other concerns that are not immediately related [6]. Though cooperation in some areas such as mitigating climate change is vital, the Government should also understand that in some areas cooperation is not immediately possible, and in others, engagement should be used to pressure China to respect international laws and values.

The merits of the Government’s approach
It is clear much may be gained from engagement with China, and the rationale behind IR23’s three-pronged approach is sound. Cleverly therefore was right to reject an overly simplistic approach to China and to recognise the importance of the country in a speech on the UK’s position towards China delivered on the 25 April 2023 [7]. The need for cooperation to address trans-national issues, avoid escalation in conflict hotspots, and provide the basis for a mutually beneficial relationship demonstrates the importance of engagement with China. As one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and one of the largest consumers of oil and coal, Chinese cooperation is essential for addressing climate change [8]. An approach that emphasises engagement will do more to encourage China to take the necessary steps to help mitigate climate change, such as tripling nuclear power and phasing out coal, than a more antagonistic approach such as treating China first and foremost as a threat and ruling out the possibility of effective cooperation.

Pandemic preparedness is another example of an area where seeking cooperation will better serve UK interests than utilising an antagonistic approach. China is currently struggling with a surge in respiratory illness, and engagement could allow for greater transparency by encouraging the sharing of data, making it easier to prevent the spread of diseases and treat them [9]. In addition to addressing transnational issues, engagement with China serves the important purpose of preventing escalation. As the UK moves to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific, it must consider how its actions may affect regional stability. Needlessly provoking China will not only destabilise the region, but also discourage those nations which do not wish to be drawn into conflict with China such as South Korea and the Pacific Island nations. IR23 has recognised that there are increasingly important ‘middle-ground powers’ that do not wish to be drawn into zero-sum competition [10]. By demonstrating that it is open to dialogue with China, the UK may provide important reassurance to those nations and so allow for the construction of deeper relations. This also ties to the UK’s stated support for ASEAN centrality [11]. By engaging with China, the UK can present itself as a more reliable partner to ASEAN, one which will not interfere in its affairs with China, and will not act as a destabilising presence in the region.

Lastly, it is important to consider the domestic benefits of engagement with China. Though the often cited economic benefits of engagement with China have been questioned in light of the nation’s recent economic problems, what is often ignored in the debate over engagement with China is the impact of the Government’s rhetoric on the Chinese community in the UK [12]. A more hawkish attitude towards China can too easily lead to the encouraging of sinophobic attitudes [13]. An approach which appreciates the complexity of international relations, and avoids the risk of being reduced to a binary us versus them narrative, is therefore crucial to avoid the spread of harmful and divisive attitudes. This is particularly necessary in light of increased tensions in September 2023 following allegations of Chinese espionage in Parliament, and considering the rise in perpetrated Asian hate following the Covid-19 pandemic [14].

Engagement and national security
Though there are benefits to the UK’s current approach, the UK Government will have to implement its China strategy carefully to ensure these benefits are maximised, and without hindering the pursuit of other foreign policy goals.

National security is the greatest concern when building ties with China. Though the former Foreign Secretary stated that national security will prioritise economic concerns, this does not seem to be the case [15]. China General Nuclear, a firm linked to the Chinese government, was allowed to continue to be involved in the construction of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, despite worries that it provided an opportunity for espionage [16]. This is particularly concerning given the recent discovery of malware present in the IT systems at the Sellafield nuclear facility, which has exposed weaknesses in the UK’s cyber security [17]. Security officials have warned that cyber attacks and cyber espionage by China are among the greatest threats to UK national security, so continuing to allow CGN involvement in Hinkley seems an unnecessary risk [18]. It is not as if the UK and China have a strong relationship in the civil nuclear sector: relations have already been damaged after CGN was removed from the project at Sizewell and it seems illogical to attempt to repair relations now in the current climate of heightened competition [19]. Though the UK Government stated in IR23 that it wishes for a mutually beneficial investment relationship with China, in sectors such as nuclear power this goal is incompatible with the aims of building resilience and protecting in areas where the CCP is a threat [20]. Thus there is the risk that the ‘protect’ and ‘engage’ strands may be incompatible in certain areas.

This is also the case for the UK’s telecommunications networks. In 2020, considerations by the National Security Council led to the UK Government banning the purchase of Huawei 5G equipment and announcing that Huawei would be removed from the UK’s 5G network by 2027 [21]. This not only highlights how security considerations hinder the development of a beneficial trade relationship, but the fact that US sanctions were a significant factor in the UK government’s decision shows the pursuit of a mutually beneficial trade and investment relationship is rendered impractical in the context of wider competition between China and the western world. Considering this, it may be more advisable for the Government to focus primarily on national security rather than on building economic ties which can be undone in instances of intensified competition.

The UK Government’s actions regarding CGN at Sizewell and Huawei in the UK’s 5G network show that it is sometimes willing to take action against Chinese firms when it believes national security is at risk. This was also evident when in March 2023 a precautionary ban on using TikTok on government devices was announced [22]. However, this ban was criticised for being illogical on the grounds that the real risk comes from the vast amount of data TikTok and other social media companies are able to access from personal devices [23]. This demonstrates that even in situations in which the effectiveness of a ban can be questioned, the UK Government has prioritised national security over economic ties. What this means is that it is illogical for the UK Government to try to build economic ties in areas where the national security risk is greater, such as civil nuclear power.

Engagement and the enforcing of sanctions
Engagement with China also runs the risk of undermining the efficacy of the UK’s sanctions regime on Russia. In the foreword to IR23, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated his desire to take these sanctions further. One such measure contained in IR23 is a new Economic Deterrence Initiative that seeks to improve the efficacy of sanctions and crack down on sanction evasion [24]. It will be interesting to see how the UK Government will implement this new initiative whilst trying to build ties with China. China has been criticised for supporting Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and the two countries have stated the need to cooperate against “Western containment [25].” Entities in China have supplied Russia with dual-use components which have since been used in its weapons systems [26]. Given China and Russia’s relationship, China has no incentive to reverse its position and support the imposition of sanctions against Russia,  meaning if the UK Government wishes to improve the efficacy of these sanctions, it will likely have to push China to take action. However Cleverly’s visit to China yielded no such commitment, and the UK Government now seems willing to treat the building of economic ties with China separately to its opposition of Russia’s war in Ukraine, when in reality the two issues are deeply connected. IR23 stated that restoring Ukrainian territorial integrity is the “most immediate and most urgent priority”, but in order to facilitate this, the UK Government must be less compromising when working to restrict support for Russia and seek to ensure that engagement with China also contributes towards improving the efficacy of the sanctions regime against Russia [27].

Engagement and the building of Indo-Pacific ties
Separating security and economic issues is not only problematic when it comes to countering Russia, but also when it comes to deepening the UK’s ties in the Indo-Pacific. In this region, the UK faces a difficult balancing act in its engagement with China. As mentioned previously, showing a willingness to engage with China is important for building relations with Indo-Pacific countries, but if the UK is aiming to construct a long-term strategic footing, it will inevitably have to act in a way that damages its relationship with China. Whilst the UK can build ties in the Indo-Pacific without confronting China through trade, investment, diplomacy, and certain non-controversial security issues such as health security and climate change mitigation, many countries in the region including the Philippines and Vietnam will not consider the UK as a reliable partner, unless it shows a willingness to place their security concerns before the UK’s own relationship with China. The UK has stated its support for the UNCLOS, and opposition to any unilateral action taken in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, but these statements will mean little if engagement with China is prioritised [28]. Countries such as the Philippines have expressed their support for AUKUS, and shown dissatisfaction with ASEAN’s inability to address their security concerns regarding China [29]. This provides the UK with the opportunity to build security ties, but it will be at the cost of antagonising China. It should be emphasised that the UK should not be needlessly antagonistic. As noted previously, many Indo-Pacific nations do not wish for a destabilising presence in the region, and UK hawkishness could very well be a barrier to the development of stronger relations. The UK Government should continue to emphasise cooperation and dialogue, but equally they should also be firm in supporting international law, and further should use any engagement as an opportunity to push China to also act in accordance with international law. If the UK continues to pursue its non-controversial approach in the Indo-Pacific, it likely will be able to preserve the ties it has whilst engaging with China, but it will not be able to strengthen relations in this geo-political region. The need for clarity in the UK’s China strategy was pointed out by the International Relations and Defence Committee in 2021 [30]. The UK Government risks repeating this mistake through continuing its current position of simultaneously pursuing deeper ties with China whilst claiming to support those countries threatened by China’s actions.

Engagement and the UK-US alliance
The ongoing lack of a consistent approach to China not only impedes building ties with Indo-Pacific countries, but also could be an obstacle in deepening the UK’s alliance with the US.

IR23 described the UK’s relationship with the US as “an absolutely essential pillar of our security” and called for the US’ network of allies to step up their contribution to burden sharing [31]. The UK is already an important contributor in Europe, but as it seeks to embed itself more deeply in the Indo-Pacific, it has to consider how its approach to China will impact UK-US relations in the region. Though the US has set out a similar approach to dealing with China in their Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy - which states that the US will cooperate with China where interests coincide - there is still room for the UK and US interests to conflict if their engagement with China is not properly coordinated or considered [32]. Furthermore, it has been argued that the US primarily values the UK as a security partner in the region, focusing more on UK efforts in the region that could help counter China, and that the US policy community views free-trade elements of the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt less favourably [33]. The ‘align’ strand of the China strategy set out in IR23 mentions working with partners to counter China, so effectively implementing this strategy requires the UK Government to ensure that engagement with China is undertaken with the UK’s partners’ interests in mind, otherwise the UK and its allies will fail to implement an effective, united response.

Engagement and human rights
Arguably the most important issue for consideration is how the UK will engage with China whilst effectively supporting the international human rights system. IR23 identifies the CCP’s human rights abuses, its disregard of international commitments, including human rights standards, and other actions which challenge the UN system as causes for concern [34]. However, it does not set out how the UK will work to counter these actions. The outlined three-pronged strategy entails addressing the UK’s own vulnerabilities and shaping the strategic environment, but does not promise any new set of actions to actively put pressure on China to respect human rights and international law, outside of existing efforts [35]. Engagement with China could provide the opportunity to raise human rights concerns and address security issues in a manner that avoids serious escalation. As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Alicia Kearns stated after Cleverly’s Beijing visit: “That is how you set your red lines [36].” This however cannot be effectively undertaken if the UK Government pursues engagement separately to calls for action regarding human rights. Whilst China’s importance should be respected, it should not be allowed to be a means of escaping accountability and culpability for human rights abuses and disregard for international law and the international legal order. Despite the CCP having acted in contravention of the Sino-British Joint Declaration regarding Hong Kong, the UK has taken little action to pressure China to respect the Declaration. It has not called for the release of political prisoners, for example, and it has not sanctioned those complicit in human rights abuses in Hong Kong , unlike the actions of the US [37]. The UK Government has also not joined the US in referring to the situation in Xinjiang as genocide [38]. The UK Government must accept that such actions will hinder building ties with China, and as well as taking action itself to use engagement as an opportunity to bring human rights concerns to light. In not doing so, the UK Government is conducting diplomacy on China’s terms: conveniently ignoring sensitive yet important issues in favour of areas of mutual benefit.

As noted by the UK Government, it is evident that engagement with China is both unavoidable and necessary. Whilst the rationale behind the three-pronged approach is sound, the implementation of this approach carries the risk that the ‘engage’ strand will conflict with the ‘protect’ and ‘align’ strands. Further, there is the risk that the UK Government will allow China to avoid addressing issues concerning human rights and international law. Therefore, unless implemented carefully, the UK Government’s adopted approach towards building engagement with China will impede the successful pursuit of other foreign policy goals.

About the author
Max Smith is an undergraduate at SOAS, majoring in Korean.

[1] Cabinet Office. (2023). Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world. p.12-13. Available:
Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world - GOV.UK (
[2] Ibid
[3] House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee. (2021) Government lacks a clear strategy on UK-China trade and security relationship. Available:
[4] Grammaticas, D. (2023). Why is the UK talking to China?. BBC News, 31 Aug. Available: 
[5] Kryvets, V. (2023). ‘Network Analysis Approach to China’s cooperative multilateral strategy in Asia between 1995 and 2020,’ Asian Journal of Political Science, 31(1), p.19. Available:
[6] See for example China’s approach to Ukraine at the EU-China summit: Staunton, D (2023) 'China-EU summit fails to secure breakthrough on Ukraine or trade - We should not view each other as rivals, says Chinese president Xi', Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), 8 Dec, p. 9, (online NewsBank).
[7] Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the Rt Hon James Cleverly MP (2023). Our Position on China: Foreign Secretary's 2023 Mansion House Speech. Available:
Our position on China: Foreign Secretary's 2023 Mansion House speech - GOV.UK (
[8] Penna, D. (2023) 'Sunak: we won't make difference if China and US fail to act', The Daily Telegraph, (London, England), 2 Dec, p. 7, (online NewsBank).
[9] The Straits Times,(Singapore) (2023) 'China steps up care amid spike in kids' respiratory illness', 6 Dec, (online NewsBank).
[10] Cabinet Office. (2023). p. 9
[11] Ibid p.24
[12] Grammaticas, D. (2023).
[13] See for example: Targeted News Service (USA) (2023) 'Congressman Dan Goldman Calls on Weaponization Subcommittee Republican Majority to Disinvite Robert F. Kennedy Jr. From Testifying', 19 Jul, (online NewsBank).
[14] Walker, P. (2023). China’s alleged spy researcher in UK parliament - what we know so far. The Guardian 11. Sep. Available:
China’s alleged spy researcher in UK parliament – what we know so far | UK news | The Guardian
Targeted News Service (USA) (2022) 'FAU: Pandemic Escalated Teen Cyberbullying - Asian Americans Targeted Most', 15 Oct, (online NewsBank).
[15] Grammaticas, D. (2023).
[16] Gye, H. ‘Sunak gives China green light to build UK nuclear plants despite nation being ‘threat to our way of life’ INews 14. Sep. Available:
Sunak gives China green light to build UK nuclear plants despite nation being 'threat to our way of life' (
[17] Isaac, A and Alex Lawson, (2023) 'Sellafield nuclear site hacked by groups linked to Russia and China - Exclusive: Malware may still be present and potential effects have been covered up by staff, investigation reveals ‘Bottomless pit of hell, money and despair’ at Europe’s most toxic nuclear site Sellafield has leak that could pose risk to public', The Guardian, (London, England), 4 Dec, p. 1, (online NewsBank).
[18] Ibid. See also: Corera, G (2022). China: MI5 and FBI heads warn of ‘immense’ threat. BBC News, 7 Jul. Available:
China: MI5 and FBI heads warn of ‘immense’ threat - BBC News
[19] Collingridge, J. and Jillian Ambrose (2021). Ministers close deal that could end China’s role in UK nuclear power station. 25 Sep. Available:
Ministers close to deal that could end China’s role in UK nuclear power station | Nuclear power | The Guardian
[20] Cabinet Office. (2023). p.31
[21] Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, National Cyber Security Centre, and the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP (2020). Huawei to be removed from UK 5G networks by 2027. Available: 
Huawei to be removed from UK 5G networks by 2027 - GOV.UK (
[22] Cabinet Office and the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP (2023). TikTok banned on UK government devices as part of wider app review. Available:
TikTok banned on UK government devices as part of wider app review - GOV.UK (
[23] Stokel-Walker, C. (2023). TikTok ban: Why security experts say UK Government’s ‘frankly irrational’ move makes little sense. i, 16 Mar. Available:
TikTok ban: Why security experts say UK Government's 'frankly irrational' move makes little sense (
[24] Cabinet Office. (2023) p.12
[25] Goujard, C. (2023). EU warns China on Ukraine disinformation and cyberattacks. Politico, 18 Sep. Available:
EU warns China on Ukraine disinformation and cyberattacks  – POLITICO
The Independent (2023). Kremlin says Russia and China must edge closer to counter Western efforts to contain them. 19. Sep. Available:
Kremlin says Russia and China must edge closer to counter Western efforts to contain them | The Independent
[26] Cross, J. (2023) 'Sanctions Tracker', (UK), 16 Nov, (online NewsBank).
[27] Cabinet Office (2023). p. 3.
[28] Ibid. p. 29 and 43-43
[29] Grossman, D. (2023). With ASEAN Paralyzed, Southeast Asia Seeks New Security Ties. Foreign Policy, 15 Sep. Available:
With ASEAN Paralyzed, Southeast Asia Seeks New Security Ties (
[30] House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee (2021)
[31] Cabinet Office (2023). p. 9.
[32] Arase, D. (2019) Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy Outlook [Ebook]. Singapore: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. p. 3.
[33] Bradford, J.F. (2022) 'US Perspectives and Expectations Regarding the UK’s Tilt to the Indo-Pacific,' The RUSI Journal, 167(6–7), p. 25.
[34] Cabinet Office (2023). p. 30
[35] Ibid.
[36] Quoted in Grammaticas, D. (2023)
[37] Rogers, B (2023) 'Voices: Never again? It takes more than words to take on the tyrants – protect human rights - IN FOCUS: There will be no shortage of well-meaning statements to mark a trio of human rights anniversaries this weekend. But, all the while, tyrants around the world are flouting the rules and committing atrocities. It’s time for action, says Benedict Rogers', The Independent/The Independent on Sunday: Web Edition Articles (London, England), 8 Dec, (online NewsBank).
See also: U.S. Department of the Treasury (2020). Treasury Sanctions Individuals for Undermining Hong Kong’s Autonomy. Available:
Treasury Sanctions Individuals for Undermining Hong Kong’s Autonomy | U.S. Department of the Treasury
[38] Rogers, B (2023).