Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made a clear break with the past on UK-China relations as he declared that the “so-called golden era” of bilateral ties is over in the face of the “systemic challenge” posed by the Chinese regime to British values and interests.

In his first major foreign policy speech at the Lord Mayor of London’s Banquet on Monday night, the British Indian leader said he wants to “evolve” the UK’s approach towards one of Asia's largest economies as he criticised the country’s human rights record.

However, he did acknowledge that the UK "cannot simply ignore China's significance in world affairs" and therefore his approach would be one of “robust pragmatism” taking a “longer-term view”.

“Let’s be clear, the so-called ‘golden era’ is over, along with the naïve idea that trade would lead to social and political reform,” said Sunak, with reference to the phrase coined during the David Cameron-led Conservative Party government around seven years ago.

“But nor should we rely on simplistic Cold War rhetoric. 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.

China anti-lockdown protests

Sunak was critical of China’s handling of the ongoing anti-lockdown protests in the country and the arrest and beating of a BBC journalist over the weekend, saying instead of listening to people's concerns, the government "has chosen to crack down further".

“The media – and our parliamentarians – must be able to highlight these issues without sanction, including calling out abuses in Xinjiang – and the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong,” he said.

“Of course, 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.

The 42-year-old former chancellor, who took charge at 10 Downing Street last month, had faced some criticism over the course of the Conservative Party leadership election back in August for being too soft on his approach towards China.

It would seem his first major foreign policy speech was intended to quash any such perception. It comes soon after a proposed meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia earlier this month, had to be cancelled in favour of an emergency meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members over developments in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

‘Can’t depend on Cold War arguments’

“China is conspicuously competing for global influence using all the levers of state power. In the face of these challenges, short-termism or wishful thinking will not suffice,” said Sunak. “We can’t depend on Cold War arguments or approaches, or mere sentimentality about our past. So we will make an evolutionary leap in our approach,” he declared.

China is engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Beijing has also made substantial progress in militarising its man-made islands in the past few years.

Beijing claims sovereignty over all of the South China Sea. But Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan have counterclaims. In the East China Sea, China has territorial disputes with Japan.

Sunak's speech confirmed an updated ‘Integrated Review’ that would take this approach into account and also strengthen partnerships with like-minded allies around the world, including India and the Commonwealth.

“By 2050, the Indo-Pacific will deliver over half of global growth compared with just a quarter from Europe and North America combined. That’s why we’re joining the Trans-Pacific trade deal, the CPTPP, delivering a new FTA (free trade agreement) with India and pursuing one with Indonesia,” he said.