(London) Accused of weakness in the face of Beijing, the British government assured Monday that it would not tolerate any attempt at destabilization, after a espionage affair which rekindled tensions between the two countries.
The Chinese government has denounced “unfounded” accusations after the announcement of the arrest in March of a man suspected of espionage in the British Parliament.
This quarrel comes as London has recently shown a desire for dialogue with the Asian giant, after years of difficult relations.
But pressure is mounting, in the ranks of the conservative majority, on conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, called to adopt a tougher line vis-à-vis China.
Speaking Monday afternoon before the lower house of parliament on his return from the G20 in India, Mr. Sunak said he had told his Chinese counterpart Li Qiang, whom he met on Sunday on the sidelines of the summit, that “actions who seek to undermine British democracy are completely unacceptable and will never be tolerated.”
British police announced on Saturday that they had arrested a man in his twenties in March at his home in Edinburgh for espionage, without revealing his identity or giving details of his activities. He has since remained at large and has not been charged.
According to the Times, he acted within parliament itself, with the conservatives in power. He “was director of an influential policy group on Beijing co-founded by the Secretary of State for Security”, and “employed as a researcher” by Alicia Kearns, the chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Denigration” according to Beijing
This man claimed on Monday to be “totally innocent”, denying being a “Chinese spy” in a press release published by his lawyers.
“I have spent my career trying to educate others about the challenge and threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” he defended, without revealing his identity.
In addition to this researcher at parliament, police arrested another man, aged around 30, on suspicion of breaches of the Official Secrets Act.
“The alleged claim that China is spying on the United Kingdom is completely baseless and China firmly rejects it,” denounced Mao Ning, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during a press briefing.
“We urge the British side to stop spreading false information and end its anti-China political maneuvering and malicious smear,” she added.
“Dialogue” with Beijing
After the “golden age” desired by former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015, relations between London and Beijing have significantly deteriorated in recent years.
The two countries disagree in particular on the repression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, a former British colony, as well as on the fate of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region or on accusations of violation of human rights in Tibet. .
Several British parliamentarians have been sanctioned by Beijing after criticizing Chinese policy towards the Uyghur minority.
One of them, Iain Duncan Smith, denounced the “weakness” of the government.
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden pledged in the House of Commons on Monday that the government would “do everything to protect the United Kingdom from any activity by a foreign state aimed at undermining our national security, prosperity and democratic values.” “.
If he did not qualify Beijing as a “threat” as some elected officials in his own camp demand, he repeated that “China represents a systemic challenge” for the United Kingdom.
Downing Street also assured that it would be a mistake to “reduce” the United Kingdom’s approach to China to “one word”.
“We must seize the opportunity to engage with China, not just shout from the sidelines,” a spokesperson for the prime minister said.
British Foreign Minister James Cleverly made an official visit to China at the end of August, the first by a head of British diplomacy since 2018.
A few weeks earlier, the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee had affirmed that China was targeting the United Kingdom, which was helpless to deal with it.