UK chooses fights as it seeks its place in a post-Brexit world
China’s ambassador to London warned of “consequences” if Britain treats his country as a “hostile” power in its dealings over Hong Kong and Huawei Technologies Co., while Russian officials topped the list of people sanctioned for human rights abuses.
The UK reaffirmed its collision course with Beijing and Moscow on Monday as it sought to establish its place in the world after Brexit.
China’s ambassador to London warned of “consequences” if Britain treats his country as a “hostile” power in its dealings over Hong Kong and Huawei Technologies Co., while Russian officials topped the list of people sanctioned for human rights abuses, sparking a threat of retaliation from the Kremlin.
“As we forge a dynamic new vision for a truly global Britain, this Government are absolutely committed to the United Kingdom becoming an even stronger force for good in the world,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Parliament as he introduced the sanctions. He pledged “to keep the flame of freedom alive for those brave souls still suffering in the very darkest corners of the world.”
The announcement of targeted sanctions on 49 individuals and organizations for human rights abuses immediately sparked calls from senior lawmakers in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party for similar curbs on China. The demands highlight a tension for the UK as it seeks trade deals around the world after Brexit while trying to assert itself as a champion of freedom.
“Britain’s future means balancing different interests and some tough choices,” said Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative and chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “But to get through this we need to remember what really matters and hold on to core beliefs -- none more than the rule of law.”
Tugendhat was joined by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith as senior MPs called for the sanctions, currently limited to Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and North Korea, to be extended to Chinese officials for the suppression of protests in Hong Kong and human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. Some said Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam should be added to the list.
Raab didn’t rule out including Chinese nationals and said he is already working on the next round of sanctions, which he told MPs are “a forensic tool” and have to be legally watertight before they are applied.
The escalation of tensions came after it emerged Britain is preparing to phase Huawei out of plans for fifth-generation telecommunications networks, sparking a robust response from Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador in London.
He accused the UK of following the bidding of the US over the Chinese technology giant and criticized its response to a crackdown on demonstrations in Hong Kong. Last week Johnson offered a fast-track to citizenship to almost 3 million residents of Britain’s former colony.
“We want to be your friend, we want to be your partner, but if you want to make China a hostile partner you have to bear the consequences.” Liu said on a video call with reporters Monday. “If you dance to the tune of other countries, how can you call yourself Great Britain?”
A report from the UK’s National Cybersecurity Centre concluded that new US sanctions mean Huawei will have to use untrusted technology, making security risks impossible to control, a person familiar with the matter said.
Officials are drawing plans to speed up the removal of existing Huawei kit, although an exact timetable is yet to be set, said the person, who asked not to be named discussing unpublished proposals.
Johnson, who set a US trade deal as the centerpiece of his international plans after Britain leaves the European Union, has been under heavy pressure from US President Donald Trump’s administration to drop Huawei from his plans. Washington warned future security cooperation could be under threat if London pressed on with the company after ministers cleared its participation in January.
Monday’s sanctions were announced as Raab set out the British version of the US Magnitsky Act. They included visa bans and assets freezes for 20 Saudi citizens suspected of involvement in the killing of the columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and two government entities in charge of North Korea’s prison camps.
The action against Saudi nationals marks a change for the UK, which has long regarded the kingdom as a crucial ally and trade partner in the Middle East. Raab was asked in Parliament if the sanctions would be extended to others in the Saudi regime and neighboring countries, including Bahrain and the UAE.
“It would be welcome if it marked the start of a more consistent approach from the Government towards Saudi Arabia, and in particular the arms sales from this country that are being used to harm innocent civilians in Yemen,” Lisa Nandy, foreign affairs spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, told Parliament.
The Magnitsky Act is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in jail in 2009 after alleging officials were involved in tax fraud, and the list includes individuals implicated in his case. Twenty-five Russians were named by the Foreign Office.
Raab, who compared Magnitsky to the Soviet-era dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, said targeting individuals rather than states, will “allow us to continue to engage bilaterally with countries that, frankly, we need to.”
That view was not shared by Russia, which said the UK’s targeting of judges and prosecutors was an “assault” on judicial independence.
“Russia reserves the right to respond to today’s unfriendly decision by the UK on the basis of reciprocity,” Russia’s Embassy in London said in a statement. “It will not improve Russian-British relations.”