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LONDON – In the race to become Joe Biden’s best friend in Europe, the UK has a plan: to be different from China.
As the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States on Wednesday will spell the end of Donald Trump’s approach to blaming China for everything, the first signals from Joe Biden’s transition team are that Washington will not let go. in Beijing – and does not want allies to one or the other.
Boris Johnson’s government officials hope their blend of harshness and pragmatism in foreign policy will rhyme with that of Biden – 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 are ready to engage. But elsewhere, the UK has faced significant clashes with Beijing in recent months: on Hong Kong, Huawei and the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. On the latter, Johnson is under intense pressure from his MPs to go even further – close to losing a key vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday night on a mechanism that would have allowed British courts to conclude trade deals with countries found guilty of genocide.
Despite this, UK officials say their approach contrasts with that of the EU which, as the UK’s former national security adviser Mark Sedwill noted in an article in the Daily Mail, on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, “rushed” a new investment deal with China days before the new president took office.
The deal was reached despite Biden’s new national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who asked the EU take the “common concerns” of the United States into account – something that Biden’s team is “deeply unhappy with,” according to Sedwill. British officials are hopeful that Brussels, starting out in the bad books of the new administration, could present an early opening for London.
“I don’t think there will be a huge shift in the current US strategic policy towards China,” a British official said, adding that the key break was expected over the years. Trump is an American desire to build alliances in opposition to Chinese economic, military and diplomatic influence – rather than going it alone. “We are naturally the closest partner to the United States on this kind of issue.”
Bigger than Brexit
Alignment with Chinese strategy is the latest political issue presented by the UK as potentially fruitful ground for cooperation with the new US administration. While Biden’s opposition to Brexit and previous critical comments on Boris Johnson have been much discussed as reasons why the “special relationship” might sufferBritish officials have been trying to point out how – on many substantive issues – London is much more in tune with Biden than it has ever been with Trump.
Climate change, the promotion of democratic values and the UK’s willingness to support good diplomatic intentions with defense spending These are all areas that British diplomats have pointed out to their counterparts on Biden’s team, officials said.
In his article for the Daily Mail, Sedwill, UK national security adviser from 2017 to 2020, claimed that those who thought Johnson would “have preferred a second term from Trump are wrong.”
He also underlined the importance of the policy towards Beijing in shaping the future US-British alliance. “We need a cohesive, consistent and comprehensive allied consensus in a new relationship with China,” Sedwill wrote. “We must challenge their behavior when it disrupts global security, violates the rules of international trade, violates our own anti-slavery measures.”
British officials present the country as a partner of Biden to help build these international alliances. A “British tilt to the Indo-Pacific” – followed by the Foreign Secretary in recent months and likely to be accompanied by an increased British military presence in the region – is also seen at Whitehall in part as a means of show voluntary support for the United States in its sphere of influence.
With Biden’s foreign policy agenda emphasizing strengthening democratic alliances following an era of Trumpist unilateralism, the UK is also hosting two major international events in 2021 to bring back its usefulness as a convener of countries sharing same ideas, hosting both the G7 summit in June and the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Meeting in November.
the The G7 will be held in the seaside village of Carbis Bay in Cornwall, ministers announced over the weekend. The priorities declared by the UK for the meeting clearly had in mind Biden’s foreign policy goals, said Sophia Gaston, director of the London-based British Foreign Policy Group.
“The G7 agenda appears to have been designed to demonstrate three things: areas in which the UK believes it has a real leadership role, such as in tackling climate change; the UK’s capabilities as a global convener, bringing together the first glimpse of a democratic ‘D10’ alliance [G7 plus India, South Korea and Australia]; and paving the way for foreign policy collaboration with the United States, but from a starting point of equals, ”Gaston said.
The summit would also be the time for the UK to flesh out its so-called Britain’s Global Agenda, Gaston said – Chinese politics being a key pillar.
“We can expect the UK to start putting some of the meat on the bones … seeking to negotiate commitments on Magnitsky sanctions [targeting those accused of human rights abuses,] challenge China on human rights and its recent aggressive behavior towards Australia; and strengthen the response to recovery from the global pandemic.
At the inauguration itself, UK officials said, the country will be represented by its Ambassador, Karen Pierce, a former UK representative to the UN.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is not expected to visit Washington until the coronavirus situation allows, with hopes Biden’s team will make a point of allowing only diplomatic exchanges absolutely essential while virus cases remain high. British officials nevertheless hope for a meeting with the new administration “as soon as possible”.
“Having face-to-face meetings and long bilateral relationships, you can really dive into issues in a way that you can’t on video calls,” the official said. “There is a burning desire to see what we can accomplish.”
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