The United Kingdom’s (UK) growing alignment with the United States (US) regarding the military, economic, and national security threat posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is at its closest point in recent years. An increasingly hawkish perception towards the PRC is becoming more entrenched on both sides of the political spectrum in Washington and London, signalling antagonistic relations with Beijing for the foreseeable future.
Since the ‘golden era’ of relations that saw critical agreements forged between London and Beijing in 2015 under David Cameron, then the British Prime Minister, the UK’s perception of the PRC has changed dramatically.
The UK’s potential designation of the PRC as a ‘threat’ to its national security comes some 18 months after Boris Johnson, the previous British Prime Minister, named the PRC a ‘systemic competitor’ in the 2021 Integrated Review. Johnson’s move was a far cry from the ‘golden era’ of 2015, when the UK’s decision to join the PRC-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank led to sharp criticism from Washington as being unnecessarily accommodating. At the same time, during Xi’s state visit to the UK in 2015, China General Nuclear (CGN) – a state-owned enterprise in the PRC – signed a strategic investment agreement to assist with nuclear projects in Britain, the most prominent being Hinkley Point C. This came after the UK and the PRC signed a civil nuclear agreement in 2014 which allowed Chinese companies to own and operate Chinese-designed nuclear power stations in Britain. Seven years later, CGN is now seen as a national security risk to the UK, and while CGN remains a stakeholder in Hinkley Point C, French-owned Électricité de France Energy is now responsible for building the two new nuclear reactors.
The US has also had to re-evaluate its relationship with the PRC. The early honeymoon period following the PRC’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 under George W. Bush, former US President, initially continued into the presidency of Barack Obama, who in 2009 gave a speech in Tokyo in which he claimed the US did not seek to contain the PRC and saw the rise of a prosperous PRC as ‘a source of strength for the community of nations.’ In 2011, Obama famously enacted his ‘strategic pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ toward Asia and voiced his desire for better ‘cooperation in the South China Sea’ with the PRC, perhaps a signal that America’s stance toward the PRC’s geostrategic objectives was hardening.
Later in Obama’s presidency after Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ascended to power with a more assertive foreign policy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement became an important pillar of the US’s approach toward the PRC. The TPP sought to stymie the PRC’s rise by creating an alternate Indo-Pacific economic grouping that would better conform to Washington’s values and draw strength from the exclusion of the PRC. Obama made this clear in a speech in Auckland, New Zealand, when he said that the TPP allowed the US, and not the PRC, ‘to write the rules of the road in the 21st century.’
After years of testing various means of engagement without committing to a single course, we now see a level of clarity and strategic foresight emerging towards the PRC on both sides of the Atlantic.
Relations became much more hostile under Donald Trump, the previous American President, as the US began to publicly call out dubious Chinese economic activity, entered into an (ongoing) trade war with the PRC, and became more forward in challenging its geostrategic manoeuvres that infringed on Washington’s interests. Despite his disagreements with Trump on other policy matters, however, Joe Biden, the current American President, has maintained – even strengthened – much of his predecessor’s policy positions towards the PRC, particularly in relation to trade, tariffs and countering certain geostrategic objectives of the PRC. It is evident that the Trump administration altered how American political parties, across all spectrums, viewed the PRC, a fact that is likely to persist at least in the short-term.
The growing alignment of the British and American perception towards the PRC is evidenced through AUKUS – a technology accelerator agreement between the UK, US and Australia – which has an aim of equipping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines to enhance its offensive and deterrence capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. This aspect of the agreement is implicitly about checking the PRC’s Indo-Pacific ambitions, particularly in relation to any future conflict over Taiwan. Huawei technology has also been banned from both British and American 5G networks, despite the UK being initially reluctant, and both nations are aligned on the desire to lessen their dependence on the PRC for the acquisition of critical minerals so as to shore-up their domestic supply chains in order to strengthen national security.
The Biden administration has built on the Trump administration’s Executive Order 13953 by launching a new executive order in February 2021; both executive orders seek to lessen the US’ dependence on the PRC for critical minerals, something deemed important for maintaining Washington’s economic and military strength in the 21st century. Like Trump, Biden also announced further investments to expand the US’ domestic supply chain of critical minerals. The UK published its first-ever critical minerals strategy in July 2022 in order to increase the resilience of its critical minerals supply chains, recognising that ‘the market is volatile and distorted, and China is the dominant player.’
The desire of both nations to disentangle themselves from the Chinese economy whilst simultaneously countering any nefarious geostrategic objectives of the CCP will certainly lead to challenges. As will the domestic fissures that may threaten to unravel the UK and US from the inside out.
As Xi Jinping’s power is set to expand at the 20th National Congress of the CCP, which began in Beijing on 16th October, domestic politics in both Washington and London are as fractious as ever. The position of Liz Truss, the British Prime Minister, has weakened considerably since she came to power, with calls for her resignation and a new election by Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party. Labour under Starmer is likely to maintain a hardline position on the PRC, with a focus on human rights and the removal of Chinese investment in key sectors of the British economy. However, as a power still in the throes of recrafting its foreign and defence relations after its departure from the European Union, and one in an economic predicament, the UK remains somewhat vulnerable when it comes to competing with the PRC due to constrained resources and political capital.
In the US, the 2024 presidential election could see remarkably similar policy positions towards the PRC from Biden and either Trump or one of the rising Republican prospects like Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida, or Josh Hawley, a Senator from Missouri. The chance of a rematch between Biden and Trump, unless Trump is barred from office, remains high, as does the risk of domestic political violence, the perceived illegitimacy of the courts, and other internal threats to democracy.
In the authoritarian system of the CCP, Xi has the luxury of time that his counterparts in democratic nations do not. He can afford to ‘cross the river by touching the stones’ in the words of Deng Xiaoping, former Paramount Leader of the PRC, ultimately seeking stability while taking calculated and measured risks. After years of testing various means of engagement without committing to a single course, we now see a level of clarity and strategic foresight emerging towards the PRC on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the desire of both nations to disentangle themselves from the Chinese economy whilst simultaneously countering any nefarious geostrategic objectives of the CCP will certainly lead to challenges. As will the domestic fissures that may threaten to unravel the UK and US from the inside out.
Alexander Brotman is a political risk and intelligence analyst based in Washington DC. He writes in a personal capacity and not through any professional affiliation.
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