China’s not a foe, says UK minister amid parliament spy scandal

LONDON — China is not a “foe,” a British Cabinet minister insisted Monday, as Westminster reels from reports that a parliamentary researcher allegedly spied on behalf of Beijing.

Kemi Badenoch, secretary of state for business and trade, told Sky News it was “important to be diplomatic” and that China is best described as a “challenge.”

But her comments come as Conservative MPs urge the U.K. government to take a tougher line against Beijing in the wake of the latest influence claims. Some are repeating their long-standing demand for the U.K. to designate China as a “threat” to Britain.

Badenoch told Sky News: “We certainly should not be describing China as a foe, but we can describe them as a challenge.”

And she added: “I don’t think we should be careless in terms of how we speak about other countries.”

It comes after the Sunday Times reported this weekend that a parliamentary researcher with links to several senior Tory MPs, including the foreign affairs committee chair Alicia Kearns and Security Minister Tom Tughenhat, was arrested under the Official Secrets Act in March.

Officers from the Metropolitan police’s counterterrorism command, which covers espionage, are investigating, the paper said.

The man at the center of the allegations on Monday released a statement through his lawyers — who have not published his name — saying “it is vital that it is known that I am completely innocent.”

He said “to do what has been claimed against me in extravagant news reporting would be against everything I stand for.”

China has meanwhile angrily dismissed the story, describing it as “malicious slander.”

The Chinese Embassy in the U.K. said: “The claim that China is suspected of ‘stealing British intelligence’ is completely fabricated and nothing but malicious slander. We firmly oppose it and urge relevant parties in the U.K. to stop their anti-China political manipulation and stop putting on such self-staged political farce.”

In the wake of the report, some Conservative MPs want the government to shut China out of Britain’s upcoming AI summit in November.

Making that demand, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told the Daily Mail: “They are a threat and until we wake up to that threat, engaging with them only makes us look weak.”

Speaking Monday, Badenoch would not be drawn on whether China should be kept out of the AI summit, saying it would be a decision for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

And she refused to say whether the U.K. would subsequently veto any Chinese membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP), a major trade pact which Britain became a member of last year.