As the free world starts to tilt its foreign policy towards the Indo Pacific region, there is no one better suited to become British Foreign Secretary than Tom Tugendhat. Despite never having served in the British cabinet, as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for the past 5 years, he has been able to influence British foreign policy towards China more than any of his predecessors.
Headlines on Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister have dominated the media not just in the UK but all over the world. The various reasons given for his resignation include a rise in taxes, the soaring cost of living, the “partygate” scandals, his support for the then-Conservative MP Owen Paterson who was accused of breaking lobbying rules in taking money from companies, and, lastly, the appointment of Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip, when it was claimed that Johnson knew of multiple allegations of sexual harassment committed by Pincher.
In truth, however, British national interests and the security of the free world are more at stake than petty politics in the Westminster bubble. A few weeks ago, the heads of the UK and US security services took the bold move of echoing each other’s cautions about the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP, according to FBI Director Christopher Wray, is the greatest long-term danger to the economic and national security of the free world, having already meddled in politics, including recent elections. Similarly, MI5 director Ken McCallum stated that his agency has more than doubled its efforts at tackling CCP activities in the previous three years, with plans in place to channel even more resources into protecting the country from the CCP’s interventions.
What is distracting Britain’s attention away from the Indo-Pacific region is not its active role in helping defend Ukraine from Putin’s wrath but the attitude of some current and former MPs, who still hark back to a Golden Era that characterised Britain's interaction with the CCP several years ago. While the Golden Era was driven by agreements to engage more closely in such fields as financial services, commerce, and investment, everything has since been turned upside down under the more aggressive regime of Xi Jinping.
Britain has already encountered many of the security concerns posed by the CCP, ranging from soft issues, such as education and business, to hard issues, such interference in parliament and breaches of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong.
With regard to education, the Confucius Institutes in the UK are reported to have been carrying out acts of espionage and enforcing censorship of the CCP's opponents. These Institutes shape opinions about the CCP by concocting an idealised narrative in which Mao Zedong is a revolutionary hero and the Tiananmen Square massacre never occurred, while censoring any criticisms of this narrative.
In addition, despite prior warnings, Huawei has failed to sufficiently address security concerns regarding the use of its equipment in UK telecommunication networks. Huawei could theoretically use its control of the technology at the core of these networks to spy on or interrupt communications in the event of a future conflict. In light of the proliferation of internet-enabled devices, this is critical. Because these devices are frequently less secure, state-sponsored hackers may be able to use them as back doors into strategically important networks, allowing them, for example, to shut down the power stations of enemy nations.
No one can believe Huawei when it claims that any demand from the CCP would be refused. Indeed, Huawei is no stranger to the Chinese military and its security agencies. Many Huawei officials, past and current, have connections to the People’s Liberation Army, the Ministry of State Security (which concentrates on foreign intelligence) and the Public Security Bureau (which oversees domestic intelligence).
A more concerning issue is that MPs have been informed by the British security agencies that a suspected Chinese agent, Christine Lee, has actively interfered in political activities - within parliament - representing the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party.
Lastly, the CCP’s overt breaches of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration represent a direct assault on Britain’s standing in the world. Hong Kong national security law not only disrespects the “one country, two systems” principle but contributes to the destruction of human rights and freedom in a city that was until recently one of the most important commercial centres in the world.
In the face of all these issues, Britain needs a strong foreign secretary who is brave enough to take on the CCP. Tugendhat, a well-known sceptic of the government with a hawkish attitude towards the CCP, was a dark horse in the race for PM but is seen by many MPs as the greatest hope for a new beginning and would represent an excellent choice in the new cabinet.
Since 2015, Tugendhat has served as the Member of Parliament for Tonbridge and Malling in Kent following a distinguished military career that included service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2017, Tugendhat became the Chair of the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which supervises the activities of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). Since then, he has made every effort to pressure British foreign policy into holding the CCP to account. In retaliation, the CCP sanctioned Tugendhat and four other members of parliament on March 25, 2021, for disseminating so-called “lies and disinformation” about the CCP’s ruthless human rights violations against Hong Kongers and Uighurs in Xinjiang.
It is clear that Tugendhat has the wherewithal to utilise the Foreign Affairs Select Committee to accomplish his goals, not to mention the support. Even former Labour MP Ruth Smeeth believes that her party political adversary is an excellent fit for Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Having worked with Tugendhat, Smeeth argued that in five years, British foreign policy towards China has shifted beyond recognition in large measure due to the constant focus that Tugendhat and others have placed on the issue.
Alongside other MPs, Tugendhat formed the China Research Group in April 2020 with the goal of “better understand[ing] China's economic ambitions and global role”. There are a number of factors to consider in this respect, including Huawei's presence in the UK 5G network and the CCP’s distorted COVID-19 information operations.
Prior to Boris Johnson’s U-turn, Tugendhat was one of the most vocal opponents of Huawei’s engagement in the development of Britain’s 5G telecommunications infrastructure due to his national security concerns. He has often urged the government to be more assertive in its dealings with the CCP, specifically over violations of the rights of Hong Kongers and Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
After a campaign by Tugendhat, the UK announced a new visa system that would allow 5.4 million Hong Kong residents to settle in the UK and ultimately become citizens. He has pushed forward his work on the CCP beyond party politics within Westminster bubble.
In June 2020, Tugendhat came up with a five-point plan to deal with what he believed to be one of the biggest threats to the liberal world order since the Cold War. The plan includes limiting Chinese students’ entrance to UK universities, preventing Chinese acquisitions of British companies, creating a new international trade alliance to limit the influence of the Far Eastern powerhouse, and preventing the CCP from dominating and manipulating e-commerce.
If this is indeed the Indo-Pacific era as claimed by many of the governments of the free world, Tom Tugendhat is the perfect fit for the role of Foreign Secretary for Britain and the county’s best hope for standing up to the CCP.
Thanapat Pekanan is a research fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science.