LONDON (AFP) - Britain's possible next prime minister Liz Truss on Wednesday (July 27) joined her rival Rishi Sunak in vowing to get tough with China - by corralling "freedom-loving" Commonwealth nations to stand together.
Foreign Secretary Truss marked the opening on Thursday of the Commonwealth Games, in the English city of Birmingham, by saying the club of former British colonies is a "vital bulwark" against the rising Asian power.
The Commonwealth includes major Asia-Pacific economies such as Australia and India, which have both been at varying odds with China in recent years.
Along with the United States and Japan, the two countries have formed the "Quad" bloc, which has warned China against resorting to military force in Taiwan in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The 54-nation Commonwealth would take centre-stage in a post-Brexit "Global Britain", Truss said, after securing a trade deal with Australia and as Britain seeks a wider deal with a pan-Pacific trading bloc.
"As one of the largest groups of freedom-loving democracies, we must ensure there are clear benefits to remaining a member of the Commonwealth and offer nations a clear alternative to growing malign influence from Beijing," she said.
"Prioritising trade with countries across the Commonwealth will strengthen economic and security ties whilst also turbocharging opportunities for British businesses to access one of the world's largest economic blocs."
In their race to succeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson, both Truss and Sunak have accused each other of being soft on China, staging rare forays into foreign policy while arguing about economic crisis at home.
Former finance minister Sunak on Sunday called China the "number one threat" to domestic and global security, as he outlined a series of steps intended to curb its fast-growing influence.
Sunak's proposals include the closure of all 30 Confucius Institutes in Britain, preventing the soft-power spread of Chinese values through culture and language programmes.
China's foreign ministry said in response that British politicians should not "talk about China at every turn and make irresponsible remarks such as the so-called 'China threat theory', which cannot solve their problems".
For their critics, both the Conservative rivals are ignoring potential economic benefits much closer to home by pursuing a hardline vision of Brexit, two years after Britain formally quit the European Union.
Layla Moran, foreign affairs spokeswoman for the opposition Liberal Democrat party, accused Truss of "reheating old promises".
"As foreign secretary, Truss has helped oversee savage aid cuts to our Commonwealth allies, pushing desperate people into poverty," she said.
"It shows all the rhetoric about Global Britain is just empty words."
Truss ranks ahead of Sunak in polls of Conservative party members, who will decide on their next leader by Sept 5 after Johnson was forced out by a cabinet revolt.
When asked about Ms Truss’ comments, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular media briefing on Thursday: “Forming exclusive blocs and inciting confrontation is not what the world needs and is against the trend of the times. Acts like this failed in the past and will fail again today.
“We advise certain British politicians to stop their laughable acts of making irresponsible remarks about China and projecting China as an imaginary enemy and stop misleading the public.”