Diplomatic row over ‘Chinese spies’ also divides British government party 12:42 in Foreign Parties want Prime Minister Sunak to call the country a threat, but he does not want to go further than talking about a challenge.

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Sunak at a House of Commons debate
NOS News

The arrest of two men on suspicion of spying in the British Parliament has sparked diplomatic resentment between China and the United Kingdom. British Prime Minister Sunak demands an end to Chinese interference, but that country calls it slander.

Meanwhile, the riot is also causing divisions within Sunak’s Conservative party over how tough action should be taken against China.

Last weekend it was announced that two men were arrested in March on suspicion of violating state secrecy. It concerns a man in his thirties from the county of Oxfordshire near London and someone in his twenties from Edinburgh, Scotland. There was also a house search in the British capital.

Researcher in Parliament

British media report that one of the men was an investigator for the British Parliament. The man is said to have had high-level access: he worked for Security Minister Tugendhat when he was still a parliamentarian, and for Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Alicia Kearns.

Both men have been released on bail until October. It is not known what the men are specifically suspected of, but British media speak of espionage for China. None of them have been officially charged. The UK Counter-Terrorism Agency is still investigating the matter.

One of those arrested says through his lawyer that he is “completely innocent”. “I have dedicated my career to educating about the challenges and threats of the Chinese Communist Party. These nonsensical news reports about accusations against me go against everything I stand for.”

Threat or challenge?

Prime Minister Sunak took up the matter with Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang on the sidelines of the G20 summit in India. He called it unacceptable that “there is interference in our parliamentary democracy”.

The Chinese embassy in London calls the case “completely fabricated, nothing but malicious defamation”. A spokesperson wants “relevant parties in the United Kingdom to stop their anti-China political manipulations.”

The news comes at a bad time for Sunak. After years of tensions over economic espionage, Chinese human rights violations and repression in the former crown colony of Hong Kong, he wanted to make rapprochement with China: last week, Foreign Minister Cleverly visited China for the first time in five years.

“We should certainly not call China an enemy. Let’s call it a challenge,” Trade Minister Badenoch replied today when asked about the matter. However, there are also party members who advocate a harder line and want the cabinet to speak of a threat.

“In fact, China ignores almost everything we say,” says former party leader Ian Duncan Smith. “It’s not a dialogue, it’s a sad monologue.”

He receives support from fellow party members in parliament. “This proves how far the tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party have penetrated British institutions,” said Tim Loughton. “You can’t help but call it a hostile foreign threat.”

‘Don’t shout on the sidelines’

Earlier, the head of the British intelligence service MI6 called China “by far the most important point of attention”. His colleague from the domestic security service MI5 also spoke of the greatest strategic challenge of the moment. The BBC reports that Interior Minister Braverman is in favor of a tougher approach to China.

Sunak defends himself against criticism from his party with the analysis that a tougher stance makes dialogue impossible. “It was the right decision to call them out on it, instead of standing on the sidelines shouting.”

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