Rishi Sunak has confronted China’s premier over his country’s “unacceptable” interference in British democracy after the arrest of a parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for Beijing.
The Prime Minister raised his concerns with Li Qiang at the G20 summit in India on Sunday, in a meeting that was still being arranged as news emerged of two arrests in the UK under the Official Secrets Act.
One of those swooped on by police is a researcher who has had links to several senior Tory MPs, including security minister Tom Tugendhat and foreign affairs committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns.
The Briton was arrested along with another man by officers on March 13 on suspicion of spying for Beijing, it was first revealed by the Sunday Times.
Sunak, who has faced criticism from some senior Conservatives of seeking a relationship with a China they see as increasingly a threat, met Mr Li on the margins of the international summit in New Delhi on Sunday morning.
Downing Street said Sunak “conveyed his significant concerns about Chinese interference in the UK’s parliamentary democracy”, as he kicked off what was characterised as a business-like 20-minute conversation.
The Chinese PM is understood to have responded by saying the two leaders obviously have “differences in opinion” during the conversation, which also touched on Ukraine and trade.
Sunak cited his confrontation with Mr Li as an example of the benefits of his policy of engagement rather than “shouting from the sidelines”.
The Prime Minister told broadcasters that he raised his “very strong concerns about any interference in our parliamentary democracy, which is obviously unacceptable”.
He insisted it is the “right approach” to be “in the room talking to the Chinese directly about those, face to face” as he defended Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s recent visit to China.
“There’s no point carping from the sidelines, I’d rather be in there directly expressing my concerns, and that’s what I did today,” he added.
Sunak has riled some of the more hawkish Tories, including his predecessor in No 10, Liz Truss, for describing China as a “challenge” rather than a threat.
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk had to correct himself for initially using the more severe diplomatic language in an interview on Sunday morning.
“The Prime Minister has been very clear when it comes to China it is an epoch-defining threat … challenge, forgive me … so of course we have got to take it extremely seriously,” he told Sky’s Trevor Phillips.
Chalk vowed that lessons will be learned, as one of those arrested and released on bail has in the past held a pass to access the Houses of Parliament as part of his work.
The Justice Secretary said: “I know that the police and no doubt other agencies will take it as seriously as well, and let’s learn whatever lessons need to be learned.
“There is a rigorous approach that is taken in terms of being provided with passes, but plainly this has got to play through in terms of this investigation, and whatever lessons need to be learned by the parliamentary authorities I am sure will be learned.”
Senior Tory MP Caroline Nokes said it was a “very timely reminder to colleagues to be careful who you’re employing” as she called for a review of Parliament’s passholders.
“I think that would be very, very important thing to do,” she told Times Radio.
Labour’s shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds said not describing China as a threat is “naive” but argued that economic ties with Beijing could “over the long-term be a positive thing”.
But he told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg China cannot be treated the same when “when you have got these appalling and shocking allegations today”.
One of the suspects, a man in his 30s, was detained in Oxfordshire on March 13, while the other, in his 20s, was arrested in Edinburgh, Scotland Yard said. Searches were also carried out in an east London property.
Both were held on suspicion of offences under Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1911, which punishes offences that are said to be “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state”.
They were bailed until early October.
Tobias Ellwood, the Tory MP who chairs the Commons Defence Committee, warned it is “potentially part of a wider, long-term, Chinese strategy to infiltrate Parliament”.
Tugendhat is said not to have had any contact with the researcher since before he became security minister in September last year.
Kearns declined to comment, adding: “While I recognise the public interest, we all have a duty to ensure any work of the authorities is not jeopardised.”
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, one of the party’s most prominent China hawks, warned of a “deepening threat” being posed by the country under President Xi Jinping.
He told the PA news agency: “This story gives the lie to the Government’s attempt not to see China as a systemic threat.
“Time for us to recognise the deepening threat that the CCP under Xi now pose.
“What price was Cleverly’s kowtow visit to Beijing?”
A report from Parliament’s spy agency watchdog, the Intelligence and Security Committee, warned in July that Beijing is targeting the UK “prolifically and aggressively”.
Last year, MI5 issued a rare security alert, warning MPs that a suspected Chinese spy called Christine Lee had engaged in “political interference activities” on behalf of China’s ruling communist regime.
Labour MP Barry Gardiner, the former chairman of the now disbanded Chinese in Britain APPG, received more than £500,000 in donations from her before the warning.
Downing Street and the House of Commons both declined to comment, citing their policies on security matters.