Katy Balls

Can Boris Johnson face down his China hawks?

Can Boris Johnson face down his China hawks?
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Relations between the UK and China came under even greater strain over the weekend. In a fraught interview on the Andrew Marr Show, the Chinese ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming said his government was still 'evaluating the consequences' of the 'very bad decision' by the UK government to ban Huawei from 5G networks by the end of 2027. It came as news broke that Chinese social media app TikTok has suspended talks with the UK on setting up its headquarters in London – citing the 'wider geopolitical context'.

That news has been met with little sadness by Tory MPs. While the Chinese tech firm that owns TikTok has since insisted they remain fully committed to investing in London, there are plenty in the Conservative party who would like to see the opposite. In light of recent decisions by the UK government on Hong Kong and Huawei, its relationship with China is becoming increasingly hostile. But there are many of Conservative MPs who still don't think that Boris Johnson has gone far enough. They are backed in this sentiment by the American government, which has been pushing Johnson to do more for some time.

Tensions could come to a head this week with the arrival of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo has previously said the US could ban TikTok completely. Not only will he meet with Raab but separately with Tory backbenchers pushing for a tougher line still on China. Those MPs viewed as the most hawkish include Iain Duncan Smith (who has called for a UK Tik Tok ban), Tobias Elwood and Tom Tugendhat.

With Johnson describing himself recently as a Sinophile, he will be reluctant to adopt the more hardline approach that these MPs would like. The thing to watch out for is how many Tory MPs side with this group. Already the China Research Group – set up by Tugendhat and Neil O'Brien – has served to show scepticism towards China is widespread across the various Tory factions. Had Johnson not moved on Huawei, a Commons defeat was looming. It could be that Downing Street has to offer more concessions in the future to avoid other rebellions.

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor. She is also a columnist for the i paper.

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