Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he is not about to “pitchfork away” offers of Chinese investment despite the concerns of some of his own lawmakers.
Decisions to bar Chinese companies from Britain’s fifth-generation communication networks and nuclear power, and condemnation of China’s human-rights record have soured relations with Beijing over the last few years, but Johnson maintains he is pro-China.
“I am no Sinophobe—very far from it,” Johnson said in an interview with Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait on Monday. “I’m not going to tell you that the U.K. government is going to pitchfork away every overture from China.”
Johnson was speaking ahead of an investment conference in London on Tuesday designed to boost investment into the U.K. and just a fortnight before he hosts the Cop-26 climate summit in Scotland. With Chinese President Xi Jinping likely to be absent from the summit, concerns are growing China may refuse to set new climate change goals and deprive Johnson of a clear win on tackling global warming.
U.K. imports from China amounted to 67.6 billion pounds ($92.8 billion) in the year through June, according to U.K. statistics, a rise of nearly 40% from the previous year. That makes China the U.K.’s third largest trading partner.
“China is a gigantic part of our economic life and will be for a long time—for our lifetimes,” Johnson said. “But that does not mean that we should be naive in the way that we look at our critical national infrastructure.”
The government has said that Chinese firms are welcome to invest in non-strategic parts of the economy but Johnson refused to spell out exactly where he would draw the line. “You’d have to look at what you’re defining as strategic,” he said.
As part of the investment conference, Huaneng will invest in a 50-megawatt battery project.
The U.K. has already introduced legislation making it harder for foreign investors to take significant stakes in critical national infrastructure.
Last month, China’s ambassador to London, Zheng Zeguang, was prevented from participating in a meeting in the U.K. Parliament in a case that crystallized the conflicting attitudes among Tory MPs.
Zheng had been asked to attend by Conservative member Richard Graham, who chairs a group of lawmakers seeking to foster good relations with China. But the invitation drew outrage from others who have been sanctioned by Beijing for speaking out over alleged human rights abuses and the invitation was canceled by Parliamentary Speaker Lindsay Hoyle.
Beijing has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority and insists crackdowns in Hong Kong are to prevent insurrection.
Johnson insisted that the relationship can prosper “in spite of all the difficult conversations about the Dalai Lama or Hong Kong or the Uyghurs.”
“Actually trade with China has continued to expand for a very long time and I think probably will continue to expand for the rest of our lives,” he said.