UK-US Relations in a Post-COVID-19 World

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UK-US Relations in a Post-COVID-19 World
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In the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic, UK’s approach towards future economic links with China has been similar to that of the US and Australia.

In the past few weeks, the Boris Johnson led government has given clear indications, that it is keen to reduce its economic reliance on Beijing.

The British PM has asked British Civil servants to develop a clear roadmap for reducing dependence upon China for medical supplies and imports of sensitive commodities.

This initiative has been named ‘Project Defend’, and seeks to examine the UK’s economic vulnerabilities vis-à-vis countries with which UK shares strained ties. Based on the findings of the report, the UK will also work towards the relocation of pharma companies back to the UK.

Apart from the strategic factors, one of the key factors for the recent decision is UK’s keenness for a trade deal with the US as Washington had threatened that a US-UK trade deal would not be possible if Britain permitted Huawei to participate in its 5G network.

The Trump administration is also working towards repatriation of US companies from China, and altering existing food and medical supply chains. There is a growing bipartisan consensus for reducing dependence upon Chinese imports.

Huawei participation in Britain’s 5G Network

The recent decision taken by the Boris Johnson administration with regard to reducing Huawei’s participation in Britain’s 5G network to 0 by 2023 is significant.

Only a few weeks ago, Britain’s intelligence community (MI5 and MI6) had stated, that allowing Huawei participation in Britain’s 5G network with restrictions, was not a threat to Britain’s security.

Earlier, Johnson had taken a decision to allow Huawei participation in the 5G network, with a cap of 35 percent, and some security-related caveats in January 2020). There are several reasons for reducing the participation of Huawei in Britain’s 5G network such as:

Domestic Pressures

According to many analysts, Johnson’s decision to reduce Huawei’s role in Britain’s 5G network was taken under pressure from a strong lobby within the conservative party, the China Research Group, which for long has been skeptical about Britain economic relationship with China arguing that Britain’s security is being compromised in the process.

A section of Conservative Party MPs had also threatened to vote against the decision to allow Huawei a 35 percent share in Britain’s 5G network. Recent Johnson’s decision was predictably welcomed by the China Research group.

US Pressure

In January 2020, the US had been critical of Boris Johnson’s decision to allow participation of Huawei in Britain’s 5G network, saying that this could have an adverse impact on the five eye intelligence network alliance.

In the midst of the pandemic, this SPV was used by the UK, Germany and France to transport medical equipment to Iran in March 2020.

US President Donald Trump during a conversation with Boris Johnson had expressed his displeasure concerning the same.

Apart from the strategic factors, one of the key factors for the recent decision is UK’s keenness for a trade deal with the US as Washington had threatened that a US-UK trade deal would not be possible if Britain permitted Huawei to participate in its 5G network.

Proposal for an Alternative to Huawei

The UK has recently proposed that an alliance of 10 countries – D10 which should work towards creating alternative 5G technologies.

This network should consist of India, Australia, and South Korea, in addition to G7 countries, France, Canada, Germany, Japan, Italy, the US, and the UK.

Interestingly, the US President Donald Trump recently stated that G7 was an outdated arrangement, and a meeting would only be held when Russia, India, Australia and South Korea can participate.

Differences over Dealing with Iran

While it is true, the UK is likely to be more cautious with regard to its ties with China. However, as far as the issue of approach vis-à-vis Iran is concerned, there are likely to have differences.

Only recently, the US has removed waivers to Joint Comprehensive Program for Action (JCPOA) signatories for cooperation between countries like China and Russia with Iran on civil nuclear projects.

While announcing this decision on 27 May 2020, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo stated, that the existing waiver for three projects, including the Arak heavy water reactor and the provision of enriched uranium fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor would end on 27 July 2020.

The US has kept one waiver intact; international support for Iran’s only nuclear power plant, Bushehr, to which Russia has been supplying fuel.

US Special envoy to Iran, Brian Hook while commenting on the decision said that “The Iranian regime’s threats are designed to intimidate nations into accepting Iran’s usual violent behavior for fear of something worse. We refuse to play by Iran’s rules”. Hook also stated that the US approach towards Iran has been successful.

The UK along with France and Germany reacted to the US decision of removing waivers and expressed their regret over the US decision.

It would be pertinent to point out, that in the midst of the pandemic, the UK along with many other countries has been arguing for a nuanced approach vis-à-vis Iran, and also fervently batted for relaxation of sanctions so that Iran can effectively deal with the pandemic.

This in no way implies, that there is likely to be a total convergence on strategic issues. Corresponding to Iran, there is potential for countries like the UK, Japan and India to find common ground.

This is not the first time, that there have been differences between the US and the UK. Washington had opposed the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) dubbed as INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) set up by the UK, France and Germany to circumvent the US sanctions on Iran.

Senior officials, including US Vice President, Mike Pence and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, within the Trump Administration had criticized the move to set up this SPV, saying that this could impact ties between Washington and the EU countries.

In the midst of the pandemic, this SPV was used by the UK, Germany and France to transport medical equipment to Iran in March 2020.

It is not just the UK, France and Germany, Japan has also assured assistance to Iran in the form of Avigan, a flu drug and for a potential treatment for the Coronavirus to Iran.

The US approach towards Iran has clearly been at the variance of many of its allies. London and Washington along with many other countries, especially Japan, India and Australia, are likely to adopt a similar approach with respect to economic links with China.

This in no way implies, that there is likely to be a total convergence on strategic issues. Corresponding to Iran, there is potential for countries like the UK, Japan and India to find common ground.

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, India)

(Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE), Nepal’s independent think tank, and Khabarhub — Nepal’s popular news portal — have joined hands to disseminate NIICE research articles from Nepal)

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