Post-pandemic trends in post-Brexit British foreign policy: Asia or the Atlantic?

Introduction

In January 2020, the UK had given a go-ahead to Chinese telecom giant Huawei to participate in its 5G network – with restrictions and conditions. The Trump administration conveyed its displeasure to the Boris Johnson administration. Not just the US President, but senior officials of the US administration are supposed to have said that this decision would impact economic and security relations between the UK and the US.

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, ties between the UK and China have steadily deteriorated. As a result of increasing strains with Beijing, and the imposition of strong US sanctions against Huawei, London began to rethink its approach towards Huawei’s role in its 5G network.

First, it was decided that Huawei’s participation would be reduced to zero by 2023. In May, Britain had also proposed a multilateral grouping of 10 countries, D10 (G7+ India, South Korea and Australia), which could work collectively for reducing dependence upon Chinese technologies.

UK-China ties after the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong

London further hardened its stance vis-à-vis China after the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, which, according to the UK, is a violation of the ‘one country two systems’ arrangement safeguarded by the ‘Basic law’ of Hong Kong and the Sino-British joint declaration signed in 1985. According to the Boris Johnson administration, the National Security Law will impinge upon not just the autonomy of Hong Kong but freedoms and rights of the residents of the former British colony, guaranteed by the 1985 declaration (these rights were to remain in place for a period of fifty years from 1997 – the year in which British left Hong Kong and handed over sovereignty to China).

Decision regarding Huawei

On July 14, 2020, on the recommendation of National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the Boris Johnson administration decided that Huawei will be removed from the 5G network by 2027. It was also decided that the purchase of 5G kits from Huawei will not be allowed after the end of December 2020.

China reacted strongly to the UK’s recent announcement, while it was welcomed by US President Donald Trump. China stated that the UK’s decision will exacerbate tensions, while the US President stated that the Johnson administration took this decision as a result of pressure from Washington. A top official in Boris Johnson’s administration stated that this decision was not driven by US pressure. Said the British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab:

But I think that decision was made not because the US said it was a good decision but because the leadership in the UK concluded the right thing to do was to make that decision for the people of the UK.

Interestingly, some media reports suggest that British officials have stated that the recent ban on Huawei was imposed with a view to placate Trump, and the UK could revise its decision, if the mercurial US President is voted out in November 2020.

UK-Japan relations

Britain has already begun to look for alternatives to Huawei for developing its 5G network. On July 16, 2020, just two days after the decision was taken to remove the Chinese telecom giant altogether by 2027, British officials are supposed to have met with their Japanese counterparts and sought assistance for developing Britain’s 5G network. Two companies which were discussed as possible alternatives to Huawei were NEC Corp and Fujitsu Limited.

It would be pertinent to point out that in recent months Britain has been aiming to strengthen trade ties with Japan, and is also looking to secure a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Japan. Both countries have also been at the forefront of pitching for diversifying global supply chains.

Conclusion

While it remains to be seen whether Britain and Japan can work together for developing the former’s 5G network, the London-Tokyo relationship has witnessed an upswing in the aftermath of Covid-19. Both countries have already begun to take steps for reducing economic reliance on China. It would be interesting to see if Britain sticks to its announcement of removing Huawei from its 5G network by 2027, in case Donald Trump loses in 2020. While Britain is seeking to strengthen ties with countries wary of China’s increasing economic dominance, the former would not likely to be perceived as a mere appendage of Washington.

New thorns in the Special Relationship: Persian, Chinese, and populist

The past few days have been witness to some important statements made in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Program for Action (JCPOA) — also referred to as the Iran Nuclear deal. US allies, including the UK and some EU member states, do not seem to be in agreement with the US President’s Iran policy in general, and especially his inclination towards scrapping entirely the JCPOA.

Boris Johnson’s interviews and his comments on the JCPOA

In an interview to the BBC on January 14, 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the JCPOA could be renegotiated, and seemed to be accommodative towards Trump. Said Johnson: ‘Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.’ Johnson’s remarks came a day after the UK, Germany, and France had issued a joint statement announcing that all three countries were totally in favor of keeping the JCPOA alive. The UK, Germany, and France had also said that they were keen to ensure that the nuclear non-proliferation regime is kept intact, and that Iran is prevented from developing nuclear weapons.

Earlier, in a telephonic conversation last week with Johnson, US President Donald Trump told him that the deal was ‘foolish‘ and that the other signatories should also walk out of it.

During the course of his interview with the BBC, which happened to be Johnson’s first interview with the media after the victory of the Conservative Party in the UK’s recent general election. Johnson, while having a dig at Trump, said that the US President thought himself of as a good negotiator, as did many others. Johnson also made the point that the current deal had been negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and alluded that this was one of the key reasons why Trump wanted to renegotiate the JCPOA.

Members of Johnson’s cabinet and their comments on the Iran deal

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, while criticizing Iran for failing to meet with the compliances related to the JCPOA, also stated that the UK is keen to keep the deal intact. Before Raab, another member of Johnson’s cabinet, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, had also indulged in some straight talk, lambasting the Trump administration for its increasingly isolationist approach towards global issues, and Trump’s tendency of taking Washington’s allies for granted. Wallace had also stated that US support for the UK’s coalition should not be taken for granted.

Responses of Trump and Rouhani to Johnson’s remarks

Trump’s response to Johnson’s suggestion regarding a fresh JCPOA was predictable: he welcomed it. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in an aggressive address on January 15, 2020, lashed out at the EU and UK, saying that all Trump knew was violation of contracts, so there was no question of a new Iran deal.

UK-US relations

Interestingly, Johnson in his interview to the BBC, had also said that there was no real need for the UK to have been informed in advance by the US with regard to the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. It would be pertinent to point out that not just members of the Labor Party, but even a senior Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, who is also a former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the US for not consulting the UK.

This brings us to another important point. While Johnson’s main challenge is perceived to be the withdrawal of the UK from the EU by January 31, 2020, there are likely to be important differences between Washington and London over dealing with Iran. A close advisor of Trump, Richard Goldberg, who until recently was a member of the White House national security council (NSC), has already stated, for example, that if Johnson wants a UK-US Free Trade deal, the UK should immediately pull out of the Iran deal.

US-UK FTA and Trump’s support for the same

Trump has been in favor of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the UK (which happens to be the 5th largest trading partner of the US) for some time. In fact, in his congratulatory tweet to Johnson after his victory in December 2019, Trump had said that Britain and the U.S. will now be able to forge a significant new trade deal after Brexit. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump had spoken about how the US would sign a pathbreaking trade deal with the UK, post Brexit.

It has been argued that while the conservative lobby in both the US and UK has been in favor of bilateral FTA, there are lobbies in both countries which are fervently opposed to such an idea. It also remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration is serious about imposing conditionalities on the UK regarding the FTA — such as, supporting the US stance vis-à-vis Iran. Given the reactions by some members of Johnson’s cabinet (to Trump’s handling of the Iran issue), it is tough to really predict the UK’s reaction.

Not just Iran, US-UK also differ over Huawei

Another issue that could be an impediment to the further consolidation of economic and strategic relations between the US and the UK is the British use of Huawei’s hardware for the development of next-generation 5G wireless networks. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had stated that non-core technologies of 5G were acceptable while core parts would be banned. At a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) in 2019, some of May’s colleagues, including Jeremy Hunt (then Foreign Secretary), Sajid Javid (then Home Secretary and now treasury secretary), Gavin Williamson (then Defence Secretary), and Penny Mordaunt (then international development secretary), had opposed May’s decision. Interestingly, Williamson had been sacked for allegedly leaking the proceedings of the meeting.

Johnson’s approach towards Huawei

In the interview to BBC, Johnson stated that he did not want to jeopardize cooperation with any of the other “5 Eyes Intelligence alliance partners” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US are the other members of this network). While hinting at the US stand on Huawei, Johnson said that those criticizing one technology also needed to provide an alternative.

Differences between US and other allies over other crucial economic and strategic issues

It is not just the UK but other allies, like India, who will be closely watching Trump’s approach on crucial geopolitical issues. For instance, the US had earlier stated that India would get a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) even if it went ahead with the purchase of S400 missiles from Russia, but a State Department spokesperson recently commented on the waiver to India and stated that there was no blanket waiver. Of course later, the State Department spokesperson did clarify that the US views these issues on a case by case basis.

Conclusion

If one were to look at the scenario for bilateral relations between the UK and the US (defined as a ‘special relationship’ first by Winston Churchill in 1946), there are numerous challenges. There is a tendency to oversimplify bilateral relationships by looking to the personal chemistry of leaders or to leaders’ ideological inclinations, as in the case of Johnson and Trump. There are likely to be a number of obstacles which may come in the way of the bilateral relationship (discussed above).

In addition to this, there is a note of caution for other allies like EU member states (especially Germany and France), Canada, and Japan, which have already borne the brunt of Trump’s insular economic policies, and his myopic and transactional approach towards complex geopolitical issues.

A decentralized look at the U.S.-China trade war

For the time being, it is highly unlikely that the Trade war between Beijing and Washington will be resolved. In May 2019, Trump increased tariffs on Chinese commodities (worth $200 billion) from 10% to a whopping 25%. So far, the US has imposed tariffs worth about $250 billion on China, while China has retaliated with tariffs on US goods estimated at well over $100 billion.

It would be pertinent to point out that trade disputes have not been restricted only to Washington and Beijing. Imposition of tariffs has been a bone of contention with numerous US allies, including Japan.

Of late, trade issues have resulted in major differences between New Delhi and Washington. Even though there are convergences between both countries on numerous strategic issues, resolving the differences between both sides on trade-related matters is likely to be an onerous responsibility.

In response to tariffs imposed by Washington, New Delhi retaliated, and has imposed tariffs, estimated at $200 million, on 29 commodities (including apples, almonds, and chickpeas). India’s decision was a response to Washington’s decision to impose tariffs, of 10% and 25% on aluminium and steel, in May 2018. Last year, New Delhi refrained from imposing tariffs, but did raise import taxes on a number of US goods to 120% after Washington declined to exempt New Delhi from higher steel and aluminium tariffs. The key propelling factor for India’s recent imposition of tariffs was the US decision to scrap the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) for India from June 5, 2019. India benefited immensely from this scheme, as it allowed duty-free exports of up to $5.6 billion from the country.

Pressure on Trump

Even though no solution is in sight, there are a number of lobbies in the US, especially trade groups and US businesses, which have been repeatedly urging the Trump Administration to find a solution to the current impasse with China.

Only recently for instance, 600 companies, including Walmart, in a letter to the U.S. President, urged him to resolve trade disputes with China, stating that tariffs were detrimental to the interests of American businesses and consumers. The letter was sent as part of the ‘Tariffs Hurt the Heartland’ campaign.

To underscore the detrimental impact of trade wars on the American economy some important estimates were provided. The letter stated that tariffs of up to 25% on $300 billion worth of goods could lead to the loss of two million jobs. Costs for an average American family of 4 would also increase an estimated $2000 if such tariffs were to be imposed.

Reports indicating the challenges to the US economy and FDI from Chinese companies in US

A number of surveys and reports illustrate the profound challenges which the US economy is facing, as well as a drop in FDI from China.

The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index also revealed a drop in consumer sentiment from 100 in May to 97.9 in June. This was attributed to trade wars between China and the US.

According to a survey released by the China General Chamber of Commerce USA, investment by Chinese companies in the United States has witnessed a significant decline since 2016 (including a sharp drop in 2018 and early 2019).

A number of important events have been held recently, where efforts were made to draw more Chinese investments to the US. One such event was the Select USA Summit. Speaking at the Summit, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated:

We welcome investment from any place as long as it’s investment that poses no challenges for national security.

US states and FDI

What was clearly visible at the Select USA Summit was the fact that a number of US states pitched for expanding economic ties with China, and drawing greater Foreign Direct Investment.

The state of North Carolina sought to attract investments in areas like IT, aviation, and biotech. The US headquarters of Lenovo are in the state of North Carolina. Trump’s trade wars have hit the state in a big way, and one of the sufferers has been soy bean farmers. As a result of a 25 percent imposition of tariffs, the price of a bushel of soy beans has dropped to $8, from $10 in 2018.

Other US states brought to the fore the impact of tariffs on their respective economies. According to a senior official from the state of Louisiana for instance, it has suffered immensely as a consequence of the imposition of tariffs. Agricultural commodities from Middle America to China are imported through export terminals in Louisiana. Don Pierson, the senior official from Louisiana, said that the agricultural economy of the state, as well as the logistics economy of the state, have taken a hard hit as a consequence of the trade wars. Pierson also spoke about the possibility of exporting LNG from Louisiana to China. Chinese companies in the state of Louisiana, which include Yuhuang Chemical Group (Shandong’s), have made major investments. Shangdong’s decided to invest $1.85 billion in a methanol production complex (this was one of the largest Chinese direct investments in US). Wanhua Chemical Group invested over $1 billion (1.2) in a chemical manufacturing complex in southeastern Louisiana.

A number of Chinese companies have also begun to realise that there is need to adopt a nuanced approach, and are still tapping certain US states for investment.

Another important event was the Select LA Summit. The Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Lenny Mendonca, chief economic adviser to the California governor, assured overseas investors of all possible support from the town of LA, as well as the state of California.

Impact of trade disputes and Washington’s stance vis-à-vis Huawei

US states and Chinese provinces have been at the forefront of improving economic ties between both countries. Both are likely to suffer as a consequence of not just the trade war between both countries, but also the US ban on Huawei. The tech company, according to a report published in 2016, contributes 7% of the GDP of the town of Shenzhen (Guangdong province). Affiliates of Huawei provide employment to an estimated 80,000 people, while a research facility in a nearby city of Dongguan, provides employment to well over 3,000.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is important for all stakeholders, not just businesses from both countries, to play their role in resolving economic and technological disputes between China and the US. It is also important for Chinese provinces as well as US states to play a pro-active role in reducing tensions. Both governments, while realising the importance of federating units, have set up official dialogues and set up other mechanisms for sub-national exchanges. It is important that these platforms now contribute towards reducing the divergences between both countries. While all eyes are on the political leadership of both countries, it is important to realise that the stakeholders in the US-China relationship are not restricted to Beijing and Washington DC.