When Joe Biden was elected as US president, many observers thought the UK would struggle to establish a close relationship with him, and that British diplomats feared being sidelined by the new administration – especially as Biden had referred to British prime minister Boris Johnson as a ‘physical and emotional clone’ of Donald Trump.
The UK’s main priority was to secure a free trade deal with the United States, but the Biden team had made it clear this would not be a priority for them. However, just over one month into the Biden administration, there has been a remarkable alignment between the UK and US.
The UK has quietly put on hold its campaign to secure a trade deal and the two countries have united around an agenda focused on shared values, a common sense of global purpose, and the willingness to use military power and targeted sanctions to deter geopolitical rivals.
Meanwhile the EU – particularly Germany – is proving a difficult partner for the US despite predictions that Biden would focus more on Berlin than London. In a research paper published ahead of the election last year, we anticipated that something like this might happen. ‘Despite its instincts to work closely with Germany,’ we wrote, ‘a Biden administration might find that the UK is a more helpful partner in achieving its objectives with regard to China – and perhaps other areas too’. However, even we did not expect it to happen this quickly.
UK getting tougher on China
The alignment between the UK and the US on China so far is particularly striking. During the last year or so – beginning even before Biden became president – the UK has moved towards an increasingly hawkish approach to China by hardening its position on Huwaei’s access to the UK’s 5G market and, remarkably, offering 350,000 Hong Kong residents the option to settle in the UK despite Chinese warnings to stay out of a ‘domestic issue’. The UK has also taken a strong stand on human rights in China by taking measures to ensure British companies and organisations are not complicit in or profiting from human rights violations in Xinjiang.
It might seem as if the new UK-US alignment is a reversion to British deference towards the US. But some British officials actually talk of the UK ‘leading the charge’ against China. This may be a little delusional – with echoes of the way that Harold Macmillan imagined Britain as Greece and America as Rome. Yet it is true that the UK is pushing ahead in some areas, such as already applying to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) while the Biden administration is constrained by a Congress opposed to new regional trade deals.
The UK has also taken the initiative in developing cooperation between democracies by proposing the idea of a D10 grouping of the major democracies – and as the current chair of the G7 it has invited Australia, India and South Korea to join the meeting in June. This approach aligns with Joe Biden’s idea of a Summit of Democracies although some British officials prefer to talk about ‘open societies’ rather than ‘democracy’.
The UK has also shown it is prepared to back its ideas with military power, announcing increased defence spending of £4 billion a year over the next four years, which is the biggest increase in defence spending since the end of the Cold War. And it appears prepared to use military resources – the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is to be deployed to the Indo-Pacific as part of the CSG21 carrier strike group later in 2021.
The alignment between the UK and the US is particularly striking because, despite high hopes of a renewed transatlantic relationship centred on the relationship between the EU and the US, the EU is a taking a different approach to the UK and US. Germany, expected to be the Biden administration’s preferred partner in Europe, has caused difficulties by pushing forward an investment deal with China and pressing ahead with the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Much has been debated about how far the UK would diverge from the EU after Brexit, especially on issues such as state aid. But it is becoming clear there is actually what Helen Thompson calls ‘big picture divergence’ between the EU and the UK – that is, they are taking significantly different approaches to geopolitical issues such as China.
The UK and US both still need Europe on many issues, not least European security, so the hope among some in London is that the UK and US can push forward – for example on economic sanctions – with the EU following behind at its own, often slower, pace. But this hope may be too optimistic as, in particular, it overlooks the apparent determination of the EU to go in a different direction from the UK and US, even though it depends on them for its security.
This article is part of a multi-year initiative led by the US and Americas programme and the Europe programme on the Transatlantic Triangle and the China Challenge.