In the wake of a BBC journalist reportedly being beaten up while covering the Shanghai protests, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned yesterday that China posed a "systemic challenge" to United Kingdom's "values and interests" as his government condemned Beijing.
In his first major speech on foreign policy, Sunak said that the so-called "golden era" of UK-China relations trumpeted by former prime minister David Cameron was "over, along with the naive idea that trade would automatically lead to social and political reform."
Britain would "need to evolve our approach to China" as a result, he said in his speech at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in London.
"We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism," he said.
"We cannot simply ignore China's significance in world affairs - to global economic stability or issues like climate change. The US, Canada, Australia, Japan and many others understand this too.
"So together we'll manage this sharpening competition, including with diplomacy and engagement," he added.
A planned meeting at the recent G20 Summit in Bali between Sunak and President Xi Jinping of China was also cancelled due to "scheduling issues".
Sunak said his government will prioritise deepening trade and security ties with Indo-Pacific allies, adding that "economics and security are indivisible" in the region.
While unlikely to please Beijing, Sunak's message was somewhat toned down from that on the campaign trail, when he called China the "number one threat" to domestic and global security.
Sunak's speech came as tensions were further strained between the two nations after Ed Lawrence, working in China as an accredited BBC journalist, was arrested at a COVID lockdown protest in Shanghai and detained for several hours.
The UK broadcaster says he was assaulted and kicked by police.
After his release, Lawrence tweeted yesterday to thank his followers, adding he believed "at least one local national was arrested after trying to stop the police from beating me".
Sunak stressed that the media "must be able to highlight these issues without sanction, including calling out abuses in Xinjiang - and the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong".
Hundreds of people took to the streets in China's major cities on Sunday in a rare outpouring of public anger against the state over its zero-COVID policy.
The BBC said it was "extremely concerned", after Lawrence was filmed being hauled away at one of the protests in Shanghai.
"We have had no official explanation or apology from the Chinese authorities, beyond a claim by the officials who later released him that they had arrested him for his own good in case he caught COVID from the crowd," it said. "We do not consider this a credible explanation."
China's foreign ministry said yesterday that Lawrence had not identified himself as a journalist.
"Based on what we learned from relevant Shanghai authorities, he did not identify himself as a journalist and didn't voluntarily present his press credentials," foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said.
He told international media to "follow Chinese laws and regulations while in China".