Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

Beijing to Britain evidence



About the author:


  1. Sam Hogg is founder and editor of Beijing to Britain, the only briefing covering the UK-China bilateral relationship. Beijing to Britain content is read widely throughout Parliament, Government and the FTSE100, and its analysis is featured across international media.


  1. Before this he worked for an MP, covering the China-facing side of their portfolio. This involved researching a Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee report on forced labour and supply chains, drafting and researching content on Xinjiang genocide allegations, and navigating the fallout of his employer being sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party in 2021.


Executive Summary


  1. This evidence looks to answer the question as to how the Government and Parliament thinks strategically, specifically on China, and what may be impacting meaningful progress and strategic clarity on this issue.


  1. This evidence sets out three key issues: politicians are not incentivised or taught how to think strategically, Whitehall is facing an internal issue around its China capabilities which limits its ability to operate strategically, and the UK’s think tanks are not properly aiding the Government's strategy.


  1. It argues that politicians should be given access to scenario-based training to broaden their strategic understanding, and that every single Committee should be pushing the Government to be more transparent around where and how its China capabilities funding is being spent, given China is a strategic issue that cuts across every department. 


Members of Parliament


  1. Parliamentarians are not taught nor incentivised to think about foreign policy issues on a strategic level. No experts are regularly engaging with the majority of backbenchers (although a number of activist groups are), and most MPs appear to just follow the whip’s direction when it comes to voting on issues that require strategic clarity. This is also a consequence of a lack of current and up to date resources from which MPs and their researchers are able to source objective analysis.


  1. A lack of strategic understanding around foreign policy can be evidenced by recent characterisations by senior politicians on why non-aligned countries chose not to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For example, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy characterised the reaction of non-aligned countries in 2021 as “[sitting] on the fence, abstaining on Putin’s monstrous act of aggression.”[1] This portrays a poor understanding of how non-aligned countries function.


  1. While a FTSE100 leadership team could expect to attend courses, events or activities aimed at building up their strategic understanding of the space they work in, an average backbench MP is not privy to this stream of development. For example, it has been reported that some FTSE100 companies have been attending ‘wargaming’ sessions on potential scenarios around an invasion or blockade of Taiwan.[2] Although the Foreign Affairs Committee has done something similar and should be applauded as such, it is not yet standard practice and widely used through Parliament.[3]





  1. Whitehall is facing an internal issue around its China capabilities. Moving past the frequently cited (although somewhat misleading) discussion around how many civil servants speak Mandarin, the wider issue facing the UK’s Civil Service is its ability to harness expertise and then promote talent accordingly.


  1. A number of civil servants have relayed to me that their progress through the civil service has hit a wall because of the way the system promotes/rewards generalists over subject-matter specialists, and generic “behaviours” over on-the-ground or accumulated expertise.[4] To advance through the Whitehall structure, they need to apply for jobs that do not necessarily utilise their specialism at all. At a time when the Government is finally beginning to process that it needs to invest in China capabilities, this seems like a significant waste. These are the people needed to inform and audit the Government’s China approaches.[5]


  1. Again, on the capabilities point, it should be acknowledged that the Government has yet to provide meaningful detail on what this pot of funding is actually going towards at a granular level, and discussions that departments will need to bid to win a slice of it are concerning.[6]


  1. Likewise, the lack of measurable KPIs on the China capabilities fund should draw scrutiny. How will success be measured? The number of civil servants who begin to learn Mandarin? To what level? And how are they applying it?


  1. Whitehall is poor at bringing in outside expertise (partly a consequence of the levels of security clearance which are perceived to be needed for any/all China-related roles) and too many roles are only being advertised internally. The Government's announcement that it has formed a “China experts’ advisory group to test and inform government policymaking, with a broad range of external specialists” should be applauded, yet no details have been shared as to who is part of this group or what general topics they are discussing.[7] Committees should be constantly pushing for clarity on this.


Think tanks


  1. British foreign policy think tanks are not making enough of an impact. It’s remarkable that despite having some of the world’s oldest and most famous foreign policy think tanks in the UK, so few are making a genuine impact at a Government level.


  1. If one role of a think tank is to think about new innovative ways the Government can strategically approach foreign policy issues, where are the papers? Furthermore, few if any can draw a direct line between a paper they have written and a change in Government policy over the last five years. Contrast this to the close relationship domestic-focused think tanks such as Onward have with their respective political parties.


  1. Clearly, at some point in this process there are issues. It’s not yet clear what this issue is, but it should be examined and something the Committee considers.




  1. Government: In the UK-China bilateral, strategic thinking can perhaps at times be characterised as trying to find the least worst option that provides the longest-term benefits. Doing so requires a sober analysis of a multitude of complex scenarios, almost none of which lend themselves to snappy social media clips or short speeches, and bravery to stand by the thinking that underwrites your decisions when facing media or political pressure, and the regular waves that come with democracy. While successful strategic thinking cannot be measured in the same way a company could - e.g. through an increase in profits off the back of moving into a new region - Beijing to Britain suggests that one marker could be the willingness to be more transparent in communicating it to Parliament and the electorate.


  1. Parliament: Politicians are under a huge amount of pressure to think about a wide range of issues, from potholes to Palestine. They do not typically recruit staff who have expertise in strategic thinking, nor are they offered frequent training on this matter. That is concerning, because it limits their ability to understand the Government’s efforts to form a strategy, and therefore their ability to hold the Government to account. As a matter of urgency, Committee members should be discussing how they can resolve this.


  1. Whitehall: Within Whitehall, too much of the strategic thinking that takes place in this space is opaque and without any level of meaningful accountability. Whitehall’s China capabilities are going to come under increasing pressure if it fails to properly deal with the issues it faces around harnessing and promoting expertise over generalists. Likewise, the many talented senior officials who hold China in their portfolios should be asking more from Westminster’s think tanks when it comes to helping provide strategic ideas and concepts for engaging on this critical issue.