CHARLIE COOPER | 19 January 2021
LONDON — In the race to be Joe Biden's best friend in Europe, the U.K. has a plan — to be different on China.
While Wednesday's inauguration of the 46th president of the United States will spell the end of Donald Trump's blame-China-for-everything approach, early signals from Joe Biden's transition team are that Washington will not be going soft on Beijing — and doesn't want allies to either.
Officials in Boris Johnson's government hope their mixture of toughness and foreign policy pragmatism will rhyme with Biden's — and set them apart from Brussels, Berlin and Paris. On the one hand, London insists that on issues of common interest like climate change they have been prepared to engage. But elsewhere the U.K. has faced up to significant confrontations with Beijing in recent months: on Hong Kong, Huawei and the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
On the latter, Johnson is under intense pressure from his MPs to go further still — coming close to losing a key vote in the House of Commons Tuesday night over a mechanism that would have allowed U.K. courts to strike down trade deals with countries judged to be committing genocide.
Even so, U.K. officials say their approach stands in contrast to the EU, which, as the U.K.'s former national security adviser Mark Sedwill noted in an article in the Daily Mail on the eve of Biden's inauguration, “rushed through” a new investment deal with China days before the new president takes office.
The deal went ahead despite Biden's incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan requesting that the EU take the U.S.'s “common concerns” into account — something Biden's team are “deeply unhappy about,” according to Sedwill. U.K. officials hope that Brussels starting out in the new administration's bad books might present an early opening for London.
“I don't think there will be a huge change to the actual strategic policy that the U.S. has toward China,”
said one U.K. official, adding that the expectation was that the key break with the Trump years would be a U.S. desire to build alliances in opposition to Chinese economic, military and diplomatic influence — rather than to go it alone.
“We are naturally the closest partner of the U.S. on that kind of issue.”
Bigger than Brexit
Alignment on China strategy is the latest policy issue touted by the U.K. as potentially fruitful ground for cooperation with the incoming U.S. administration. While Biden's opposition to Brexit and previous critical comments about Boris Johnson have been much-discussed as reasons why the “special relationship” might suffer, U.K. officials have been at pains to point out how — on many matters of substance — London is much more in tune with Biden than it ever was with Trump.
Climate change, the promotion of democratic values and the U.K.'s willingness to back up good diplomatic intentions with defense spending are all areas that U.K. diplomats have highlighted to counterparts in Biden's team, officials said. “In our fight against COVID and across climate change, defence, security and in promoting and defending democracy, our goals are the same and our nations will work hand in hand to achieve them,” Johnson said in his statement welcoming the inauguration Tuesday evening.
In his article for the Daily Mail, Sedwill, U.K. national security adviser from 2017 to 2020, claimed that those who thought Johnson would have “preferred a second Trump term are mistaken.”
He also highlighted the importance of policy toward Beijing in shaping the future U.S.-U.K. alliance. “We need a consistent, coherent and comprehensive allied consensus in a new relationship with China,” Sedwill wrote. “We must contest their behaviour when it disrupts global security, breaks international trade rules, breaches our own anti-slavery measures.”
U.K. officials are pitching the country as a partner for Biden in helping to build those international alliances. A U.K. “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” — trailed by the foreign secretary in recent months and likely to be matched by an increased U.K. military presence in the region — is also seen in Whitehall in part as a way of showing willing support to the U.S. in its sphere of influence.
With Biden's foreign policy agenda emphasizing the strengthening of democratic alliances after an era of Trumpist unilateralism, the U.K. also has two major international events in 2021 to ram home its usefulness as a convenor of like-minded nations, hosting both the G7 summit in June and COP26 U.N. climate change meeting in November.
The G7 will be held in at the seaside village of Carbis Bay in Cornwall, ministers announced at the weekend. The U.K.'s stated priorities for the meeting had Biden's foreign policy goals plainly in sight, said Sophia Gaston, director of the London-based British Foreign Policy Group think tank.
“The G7 agenda appears to have been designed to demonstrate three things: the areas where the U.K. feels it has a genuine leadership role, such as in tackling climate change; the U.K.'s capabilities as a global convenor, bringing together the first outline of a ‘D10' democracy alliance [G7 plus India, South Korea and Australia]; and opening ground for foreign policy collaboration with the United States, but from a starting point as equals,” Gaston said.
“We can expect to see the U.K. starting to put some of the meat on the bones … seeking to broker commitments on Magnitsky sanctions [targeting those accused of human rights abuses,] challenging China on human rights and its aggressive recent behaviour towards Australia, and shoring up the global pandemic recovery response.”
At the inauguration itself, U.K. officials said, the country will be represented by its ambassador, Karen Pierce, a former U.K. representative at the U.N.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is not expected to visit Washington until the coronavirus situation allows, with expectations that Biden's team will make a point of permitting only absolutely essential diplomatic exchanges while virus cases remain high. U.K. officials are hopeful nonetheless of a meeting with the new administration “sooner rather than later.”
“Having face to face meetings and lengthy bilaterals, you can really dive into issues in a way you can't on video calls,” the official said. “There's an eagerness to see what we can achieve.”