LONDON • Mr Rishi Sunak has promised to get tough on China if he becomes Britain's next prime minister, calling the Asian superpower the "No. 1 threat" to domestic and global security.
The former finance minister's pledge on Sunday comes after his rival in the race to lead the ruling Conservative Party, Ms Liz Truss, accused him of being weak on China and Russia.
On her part, Ms Truss' campaign on Sunday said she would introduce low-tax, light-regulation investment zones across the United Kingdom to spur economic growth if she came to power.
China's state-run Global Times has previously said Mr Sunak was the only candidate in the contest with "a clear and pragmatic view on developing UK-China ties". The Daily Mail, which has come out for Foreign Secretary Truss in the race to succeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson, called that "the endorsement that nobody wanted".
Mr Sunak's proposals include the closure of all 30 Confucius Institutes in Britain, preventing the soft-power spread of Chinese influence through culture and language programmes.
He also promised to "kick the (Communist Party of China) out of our universities" by forcing higher education establishments to disclose foreign funding of more than £50,000 (S$83,400) and reviewing research partnerships.
Britain's domestic spy agency MI5 would be used to help combat Chinese espionage, and he would look to build "Nato-style" international cooperation to tackle Chinese threats in cyberspace.
He would also study the case for banning Chinese acquisitions of key British assets, including strategically sensitive tech firms.
Mr Sunak claimed China was "stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities" and "propping up" Russian President Vladimir Putin abroad by buying Russian oil, as well as attempting to bully neighbours, including Taiwan.
He hit out at China's global "Belt and Road" scheme for "saddling developing countries with insurmountable debt".
"They torture, detain and indoctrinate their own people, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, in contravention of their human rights. And they have continually rigged the global economy in their favour by suppressing their currency," he added.
"Enough is enough. For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China's nefarious activity and ambitions. I will change this on day one as PM," Mr Sunak said.
His tough-talking will doubtless please China hawks in the Tory ranks, who have repeatedly pushed Mr Johnson to stand up more to Beijing.
But it is also a sign of how Mr Sunak is desperately trying to claw back ground on Ms Truss, whom opinion polls have put as being well ahead in the crucial hunt for votes from the 200,000 grassroots Tory members.
A winner will be announced on Sept 5.
Ms Truss has similarly urged a tougher approach, calling for the Group of Seven industrialised countries to become an "economic Nato" against Chinese threats, and warned Beijing of sanctions if it did not play by international rules.
Her allies hit out at Mr Sunak for not doing more when he was finance minister.
Ms Truss, in a pitch to the Tory base, on Sunday said areas would be selected for redevelopment for the low-tax, light-regulation investment zones. These would be given features such as reduced planning restrictions and a lower tax burden to encourage enterprise.
The Sunak and Truss campaigns have sparred in recent days over issues such as illegal immigration, national security and the economy, both seeking to pitch themselves as the true candidate of the ideological right to win over the party faithful.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG