Hong Kong (CNN)Beijing has urged candidates vying to be Britain's next Prime Minister to refrain from "hyping up the so-called 'China threat,'" as foreign relations with the Asian economic giant emerge as a key issue in the closely-fought leadership race.
Both former finance minister Rishi Sunak and his rival, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, have talked tough as they challenge for the top role, framing the United Kingdom as needing to defend its values against China's influence -- and Beijing has taken notice.
"I want to make it clear to certain British politicians that making irresponsible remarks about China, including hyping up the so-called 'China threat,' cannot solve one's own problems," Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday, when asked in a regular news briefing about comments made by Sunak.
Sunak claimed in a statement that day that China and its ruling Communist Party represented the "largest threat to Britain and the world's security and prosperity this century."
He vowed to "face down China" if elected, including by shuttering Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes in the UK. In 2020, the network was designated as a foreign mission by the United States, which said it was a means for China to exert influence on campuses. Institute operators denied those allegations, saying they focus on Chinese language and culture.
Sunak also said he would build a "NATO-style" alliance of "free nations" to tackle Chinese cyber-threats -- a project that would require buy-in from other countries who may be wary of such a direct approach.
However, the UK has found itself in increasing alignment with the US on China -- earlier this month, the heads of the FBI and the UK's MI5 security service said in a joint address that the Chinese Communist Party presents their "most game-changing challenge."
Truss, who has been seen in the Conservative Party as a China hawk, has sought to peg Sunak's China stance as a reversal, pointing on Monday to a "desire for closer economic relations with China" from the Treasury, when it was run by Sunak. Last year, speaking as chancellor, Sunak called for a "mature and balanced relationship" with Beijing.
In the first head-to-head debate between the two on Monday, Truss said the UK should limit technology exports to "authoritarian regimes." She also said it should crack down on companies like social media platform TikTok, owned by Chinese media giant Bytedance, when asked if she would take action specifically against the platform, as some members of Parliament have called for.
"I don't think it's inevitable that China will be the biggest economy in the world. In fact, we've been enabling that to happen," Truss said at the debate, which was hosted by BBC News.
Both contenders are seeking to burnish their credentials among their fellow Conservative Party members, who will choose between them in a vote running from next month to early September.
It remains unclear how the ultimate winner would translate rhetoric to China policy and trade relations after a winner emerges on September 5.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao's comments on Monday were not the only sign that Beijing is watching the election, the outcome of which has the potential to further harden the British line on China.
That relationship has been strained in recent years due to British concerns over Beijing's crackdown on civil society in Hong Kong, alleged major human rights violations in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, and the perceived national security threat of Chinese-funded domestic infrastructure. China and its companies have denied such a threat exists and warned Western nations that comments on its rights record are tantamount to interference its in internal affairs.
This has amplified a hard line on China within the Conservative Party and ended what was characterized by previous Conservative governments as a "golden" age in China-UK rapport -- but Johnson had still sought to keep economic ties open.
An article on the election in China's state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times on Tuesday cited Chinese analysts to warn that Britain would "definitely suffer more" if it "further worsens" its relations with China and "affects the bilateral trade relationship."
The article said "politicians can say whatever they want to get votes" during the election, "but they should also remember what their priorities are after being elected and what will happen if they really deliver on their promises."
When asked in Monday's debate if they were prepared to damage those trade relations -- China was the UK's single largest importer and its sixth largest export partner last year -- both candidates gave few tangible details but framed their answers in terms of values.
Truss said European nations had to learn from the "mistakes" they made in becoming too reliant on Russian oil and gas prior to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
"We cannot allow that to happen with China. Freedom is a price worth paying," she said.
Sunak pointed to legislation he had supported to enable the government to block investment from countries and companies deemed inconsistent with British values and interests or to be trying to "infiltrate"