Written Evidence submitted by Ms Anna Tan

Liaison Sub-Committee on the Scrutiny of Government Strategic Thinking

House of Commons Select Committee


Anna Tan is a Doctoral Candidate at the Lau China Institute, King’s College London. She is also the President of King’s Doctoral Students’ Association (KDSA) of the KCLSU. She teaches undergraduate students in the Department of War Studies on subjects related to statecraft, grand strategy, diplomacy and international relations. She has also taught master’s students from the Lau China Institute. Anna’s expertise is in UK-China relations and international development. Anna is also a member of the Global Institutes’ Indo-Pacific Research Group. She has a master’s degree in Global Affairs (Overall Distinction). Prior to academia, Anna previously worked for the American Red Cross and the UN Development Programme on human rights, foreign aid and peacebuilding.

  1. Questions addressed:

-          The UK’s place in the 21st Century international order, while balancing security and prosperity


  1. Short summary:

-          Since the publishing of the Integrated Review in 2021, there have been increasing discussions in parliament regarding whether or not the government needs to have a clear ‘China strategy’. To have a clear strategy, first it would require one to understand and clearly define the concept of strategy itself, as well as having an in-depth understanding of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) works. Given the opaque nature of the regime, which has worsened since the rise of Xi Jinping, one could argue that having a strategy itself would be pointless given that it could be taken over by the regime’s unpredictable behaviour. This was observed in Beijing’s breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in Hong Kong that has upheld the city’s status as a financial hub up until 2019, and later, Beijing’s handling of the COVID19 outbreak. If we cannot predict China, then what is the point of having a strategy?


-          This is a challenge, however, to the extent the UK thinks of strategy as a science, therefore cannot develop that flexibility that dealing with an unpredictable China and many hidden variables require This uncertainty can be managed by taking strategy as a form of art, which will allow us to use more flexible and adaptable tactics in policy and diplomacy. To do so, this would require us to challenge our existing assumptions about where the UK places itself in the international order, and how it should interact with China to influence China’s behaviour.


-          In this evidence, I want to challenge two key predominant assumptions within the parliament and preceding UK Government administrations seen within the discourse of China policy. I argue here that these two assumptions are artifacts of unclear strategic thinking within the Government.


-          The first predominant assumption that I want to challenge is the idea that national security and economic prosperity are two separate things that are in competition with each other. This enduring perception keeps the UK from thinking outside the box and is more of a relic of the post-Cold War neoliberalism in US foreign policy. Whilst it is important that the UK maintains a close alliance with the US given the historic nature of the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries, the UK should consider balancing alliances and exercise its autonomy to show that it can think for itself. It needs to understand that just because a policy has worked elsewhere, it does not necessarily mean that it would work in the current context of China under Xi Jinping. We have seen that economic development in China has not necessarily led to increased civil and political liberties. Since the rise of Xi Jinping, China has come under a much more repressive style of governance, and the CCP under his leadership places more priority on ideology unity of the party rather than economic development. China’s economic power is more of a legacy from Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, and economic prowess has become more a means than an end.


-          Viewing economic concerns and security concerns as two, competing or incompatible policy issues holds the UK back in strategic thinking. It is not only short-sighted, but also archaic. This neoliberal view of security was applicable to a post-Soviet geopolitical landscape. However, this landscape has since undergone seismic shifts after the economic disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the COVID19 pandemic. Political instability abroad, can indeed impact economic prosperity at home. Long-term economic prosperity would require us to have secure, sustainable trade relations and supply chains.


-          The second predominant assumption I challenge here is on the idea that the UK is still somewhat of a superpower, be it owing to the legacy of the Empire or being a P5 member. The Integrated Review Refresher in 2023, the UK rather describes itself as a ‘soft power superpower’ rather than a middle power. The UK may have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but the US is the only power in the P5 that has a general consensus of being a superpower. China is closer to being a superpower than the UK is, unfortunately. Neither Russia, nor France or the UK are superpowers. The combination of the two terms ‘soft power’ and ‘superpower’ is an oxymoron and shows conceptual confusion. The basic definition of what it means to be a superpower is to be the leading power in not just only one but across all four axes of power: military, economic, political and cultural, the latter of which some may refer to as soft power (Bremmer, 2015; Dreyer, 2007)[1]. Soft power can also be described as more of an ideological appeal.[2] At the moment, only the US appears closely with this definition, with China following closely behind.


-          The power disparity between the UK and China has also swapped places since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong: China has now become the stronger power here than the UK over the course of the past two decades. Even in strictly material terms, there is no question that both US and China have much bigger, stronger economies and militaries than compared to the UK. The UK’s balance of payments suggests itself that it is more dependent on China’s economy than it is the other way round. The pound sterling has also depreciated drastically after the UK left the Single Market post-Brexit. The UK needs to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths related to its position in the world and realise that whilst it is the weaker power compared to the size of China, it should not be overwhelmed and panicked by it.


-          Strategy is a continuous and integrated approach of navigating future risks to achieve the ends that we desire. It is crucial that the means to achieving the ends take into account the potential responses of our adversaries and allies alike. In simpler terms, the way that the government communicates to the audience both in the domestic area and internationally, is critical to its strategy, if not paramount to it. It needs to take into account how the way it articulates itself and its position in the international order will be perceived by partners, competitors and adversaries alike.


-          Secondly, there are values to being a middlepower than being a superpower. One would be it is harder for a superpower to not create ripples and waves everytime it moves. On the other hand, a middlepower has more room to use quiet diplomacy more effectively, which can be helpful in the context of human rights diplomacy. My previous research assessing the human rights diplomacy of Western countries in Myanmar over the years of 2008 to 2021, finds that there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to the loud approach of advocacy in human rights diplomacy. The study finds that self-identified middle powers such as Australia and Norway are better experienced and more effective in human rights diplomacy through quiet diplomacy, than compared to the US. In Myanmar, because the UK has followed the US-lead, there is a dissonance between its diplomatic approach as it did not reflect is position in the global power gradient.[3]


-          This brings to my third point, which is that acknowledging itself as a middle power explicitly will open doors for it to engage with other middle powers to exchange experiences on how they navigate the challenges in the international order posed by the intensifying relationship between the US and China. It can open doors to collaborate and learn from each other on addressing a wide range of issues effecting international security, including supply chain resilience, transnational crime, epidemics, surveillance and implications of the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to open societies and democratic freedoms. By optimising its middlepowerman-ship, it will allow the UK to live up to its potential. Improving its articulation of its strategic thinking will allow it to seize more opportunities to work together with both ‘like-minded’ allies, to mitigate risks posed by ‘systemic competitors’ and adversaries.


-          My fourth point is that all of this cannot be separated from how the government and the parliament in the UK performs domestically, as that is closely tied to how its allies, competitors and adversaries view the UK from abroad. The UK has had a series of government scandals over the past couple of years. The Home Office’s treatment of migrants as well, especially with reference to the Windrush Scandal during May’s administration, and the recent High Court ruling of the Rwandan Migration Bill as illegal, are not really  good advertisements of the UK’s ‘ideological appeal’ and ‘soft power.’ It needs to acknowledge that having a competent and stable government and economy at home is the key to a sustainable foreign policy. It has to show that it can convince both international and domestic audiences that it is a responsible ‘force of good’ in the world that knows where it used to be, where it currently is and where its going. This is an important step towards the UK regaining confidence in the international stage. Strategic thinking could only go as far as the government has the ability to self-reflect.


-          The good thing is that the UK, at least within the Cabinet Office since the first Integrated Review in 2021 and recently the refresher in 2023, is beginning to recognise that security and normative threats posed by China and other hostile entities do indeed have direct implications on the UK’s economic prosperity at home. The enactment of the National Security Investment Law in 2021 and thereby the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in 2023 are positive steps forward, though quite overdue. But this conceptual clarity should be recognised on a much broader level within various aspects of the UK domestic arena, especially actors outside of the government and parliament. This would require the government increasing its engagement and innovating its existing ways of interacting with with civil society, business actors, academics, public intellectuals and the general public. It needs to be clear within its public diplomacy and official narratives that there is a distinction that needs to be drawn between recognising the specific threats imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the discrimination of people of East Asian/Chinese descent.


-          What economic security means different things for different countries, and for the UK, which would be unique to its position in the world and domestic capabilities. By recognising itself as a distinct middlepower amongst other middlepowers in the world, this would provide more clarity on what the UK can and cannot do in global challenges, for instance, in the way it deals with China in the context of the dominating influence of the US on the UK’s foreign policy. It will allow the UK to explicitly articulate to its domestic and international audience on the extent to which it can follow the US and yet still protect its national interests. Based in my existing research on various actors within the UK-China business community, the UK needs to have a better and convincing ‘official’ justifications over its foreign policy choices than just implying it cannot upset its alliance with the US, because that in itself indicates the lack of agency on the UK’s part on not being able to think for itself. It creates the perception of the US being almost like a parent figure’ to the UK, which dims down the UK’s global image to powerful countries such as China, India and Japan. The reversal of Huawei’s investment in the UK’s 5G infrastructure is a great example here. The UK needs to recognise that what economic security and more broadly, national security means for itself, is dependent on its unique position of influence in the international order and its ability to articulate that influence to the world.


  1. Recommendations

-          The UK’s government official narratives should articulate conceptual coherence, which in turn will allow the government to shape a more coherent strategy that is sustainable for the longer term. Having conceptual clarity will allow us to manage longer term benefits and risks. More importantly, official government policy narrative should more closely reflect what it has to offer and can offer to the world. Overselling leads to embarrassing policy U-turns down the line (e.g., Cameron administration’s ‘golden era’ narrative, Huawei and British 5G infrastructure, Sunak’s campaign motto on ‘banning Confucius institutes’, etc.). Underselling can lead to the UK not achieving its potential, for instance, how higher education is under-valued as a soft power resource at present. Both tactics have long term consequences on how seriously the UK is taken by other countries, and thus its overall global influence.


-          The way other nations perceive the UK is inexplicably tied to the level of influence it is able to exert and the amount of impact it can make on global affairs. If it preaches on the integrity of democratic values to the world, it needs to set itself as a good example as well at home. This means the UK needs to change how government affairs are conducted domestically, such as having more stringent regulations against politicians and public officials showing behaviour lacking in integrity. Lack of integrity in public officials has become more normalised since the Johnson administration.


-          Rather than forcing itself to accept that having an economically dependent relationship with China is an inevitability, it should encourage innovation in domestic markets and diversify its partnerships in international markets. Whilst joining the CPTPP is a positive step forward, the UK should help not just other ‘like-minded’ partners in joining, but also other competitors who may not necessarily be fully-fledged democracies. After all, the threat posed by Beijing does not come from either the fact that China is a superpower or that it is autocracy – rather, the threat comes from a combination of both, the impact of which cannot be maintained by international rules and norms.


-          Managing the anxiety and destabilisation caused by state-based threats from China would require increasing China capabilities domestically within the UK. This would require the government should make it easier for experts in academia and industry to contribute towards increasing these capabilities by working together in practical ways, beyond their dominant roles as actors simply informing government policy. Both the Civil Service and the Parliament could benefit from more specialist-oriented recruitments on international relations and China studies, making decision-making less susceptible to group-think. The guiding principle of increasing China capabilities at home should balance the need for a plurality of expertise on the UK’s strategic relationship with China, as well as the need to protect the UK’s national security and democratic institutions.




[1] Bremmer, I. (2016). Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, Portfolio (Penguin Group)

[2] Dreyer, J.T. (2007). Chinese Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy Research Institute Footnotes, The News Letter of the Marvin Wachman Fund for International Education, 12 (5), February 2007

[3] Tan, A. (2021). A Critical Assessment Of Human Rights Diplomacy By Western States In Myanmar (Burma) from 2007 TO 2020, Asian Affairs, 52(3), pp. 655-687