16 Dec Global Britain – Navigating the US-China Twitter crossfire
“Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency – I don’t think so!” – “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!”.
These tweets, and other comments made by President-elect Trump have sparked a rise in tensions over the last week between two of the UK’s most important partners; the US and China. As the UK seeks to re-establish its international position post-Brexit, a fall-out between two such key countries would inevitably have a detrimental impact on the UK’s international interests.
Boris Johnson has recently talked about the need for “Global post-Brexit Britain”, and indeed, the UK should aim to continue reaching out to countries across the world to establish new relationships whilst strengthening its historic ones. So far, the UK has shown positive signs that it is doing just that, for example, despite the uncertain impact on the UK’s strategic interests of a Trump presidency, the UK is focussed on maintaining its historic relationship with the US, and as Theresa May stated last month, “taking the next step in the golden era of relations between the UK and China”. However, we must be cautious and view it as a good start rather than an accomplished success.
The UK’s dependency on a stable and collegiate international system supports the Foreign Secretary’s call for a Global Britain. The UK must be ambitious in what it wants to secure for its citizens from its foreign policy , but also be a trusted ‘honest broker’ at the heart of the international system, acknowledging that whilst some alliances are more strategic than others, the UK seeks to engage and dialogue with all. But when tensions rise between systemic powers such as China and the US, the UK’s aspiration to be an honest broker becomes both more important but also fraught with risk. This is not to say the current tensions between the US & China will necessarily elevate, but it is a timely reminder of the increasingly tense, multipolar, volatile environment the UK faces post-Brexit. A sure-footed, carefully calibrated and internally coherent strategy will be key to overcoming such rising tensions.
This challenge becomes all the more relevant to the UK due to the implications of Brexit as the UK will no longer have the fall-back option of the EU. As the UK wades through the muddy waters of Brexit, it will inevitably cause some frayed relationships with an aggrieved EU. Therefore, not only will the UK lose the benefits of the EU’s external relations machinery, but it will need to work over the course of the next few years to recover a position of trust with the EU, including through the negotiations themselves. How to go about that is a significant challenge itself, but it highlights how now, more than ever, the UK needs to be thinking more strategically about what it wants from its international alliances post-Brexit. In particular it underscores the need for a clear-eyed evaluation of the various areas of alignment and tensions with global partners such as China and the US, and the most effective way to manage these ever shifting strategic alliances to secure the best outcomes for UK citizens, and global interests.