The UK government’s response to alleged Chinese state-backed cyber attacks on British institutions and politicians was designed to avoid “trade issues” with Beijing, a senior minister said.

The UK government on Monday sanctioned a company based in Wuhan and two individuals it said were members of a state-affiliated group known as APT31, who it accused of targeting British Members of Parliament. That prompted accusations from some MPs that ministers aren’t going far enough in punishing China.

“Clearly starting some sort of trade issues is what we want to avoid,” Education Secretary Gillian Keegan told GB News on Tuesday morning. Describing Chinese hacking attempts as a “complex issue,” she said Beijing was “a large trading partner,” adding: “We do get a lot of our imports from China.”

Keegan’s comments suggest that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government sought to balance its allegations of Chinese state-backed cyber attacks, made alongside the US and other partners, with its trade interests. 

Lawmakers in the governing Conservative Party whose email accounts were targeted by hacking attempts criticized the limited sanctions, with former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith comparing them to “an elephant giving birth to a mouse,” and Tim Loughton saying he was “underwhelmed” by Britain’s actions.

China’s foreign ministry accused the UK of providing insufficient evidence, saying it made “technical clarifications” in response to APT31 but has not heard back from the UK. The clarifications “made clear that the evidence provided by the UK was inadequate and relevant conclusions lack professionalism,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian said at a regular briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, without specifying what those points were.

Lin also accused the US of working with the UK to hype up China’s cyber security threat and said China had made diplomatic complaints to the US and other relevant parties, without elaborating. Lin added that China would take necessary measures to safeguard its lawful rights and interests.