As U.S., U.K. Converge on China, British Lawmaker Says 'Golden Era Is Over'

The United States and United Kingdom are in near total alignment in major foreign policy areas, a British lawmaker with the country's ruling party has said, as analysts in Washington predict a coordinated effort to tackle some of the most pressing challenges posed by China.

Echoing recent sentiments expressed on Capitol Hill, Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said there had been an "awakening" in the U.K. to the many irreconcilable practices of the Chinese government.

While much of the world's attention was on the downturn in U.S.-China relations under former President Donald Trump, there has also been a notable hardening of British attitudes toward Beijing in the same period.

"The systemic challenge that we face from Beijing is increasingly realized," said Tugendhat, Conversative Party Member of Parliament for Tonbridge and Malling in the English county of Kent.

"Deep concern over human rights," including widely reported abuses of Uyghur Muslims and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang, have "risen up the agenda" among policymakers in the U.K., he added.

Amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic last April, Tugendhat and other Conservative backbenchers founded the China Research Group. Beyond his committee duties to scrutinize the U.K.'s Foreign Office, he wanted the CRG to help inform the government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and "fill a gap" in Britain's understanding of China and its ruling party, Tugendhat told Newsweek.

The government announced a ban on Huawei's 5G equipment last summer, roughly a year after the Trump administration moved to restrict the Chinese technology giant over cybersecurity concerns.

British telecom firms were at first given until 2027 to remove Huawei from their networks—or face fines—but in November, the U.K.'s digital secretary, Oliver Dowden, announced that operators would have to stop installing Huawei's 5G equipment from the end of September 2021.

The CRG's latest report in December highlighted other areas of concern when it came to China, all of which overlap with key issues raised by the Biden administration. Among them are Chinese influence in higher education and worries over dual-use technology. Beijing's crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and its human rights violations against Uyghurs are also high on the list.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sounded fears over China's "deeply disturbing" decision to introduce a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong last June. More recently, he has announced a route to citizenship for millions of Hongkongers holding British National (Overseas) passports, and addressed reports of forced labor in Xinjiang by strengthening supply chains under the U.K.'s Modern Slavery Act.

The CRG, however, is pushing Johnson's government for more, including the application of Magnitsky-style sanctions on Communist Party officials and entities responsible for the practices which have troubled the U.S. and U.K, as well as other international observers.

"The Golden Era is over," Tugendhat said, referring to a phrase former British chancellor George Osborne used to describe the U.K.'s close relationship with China in 2015, during a period marked by a state visit by Chairman Xi Jinping and China's "First Lady" Peng Liyuan.

Toward the end of Trump's presidency, his administration declared China's policies in Xinjiang as genocide. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he agrees with that assessment of forced labor, forced sterilization and mass detention of ethnic minorities in "re-education camps," which Beijing has touted as part of its successful counterterrorism campaign in the region.

The State Department on Wednesday reiterated the Biden administration's position on the matter, including its view of China as having committed "crimes against humanity."

Although the British government has been unequivocal in its description of events in northwestern China, it has so far stopped short of using the same declaration.

While there may be debate among governments as to whether China's policies in Xinjiang constitute genocide in themselves, Tugendhat said Beijing's actions in the region should not be tolerated to begin with.

"We shouldn't wait for genocide to take action against human rights violations," he said.

By the Tory MP's reading, alignment between Washington and London on foreign matters was now "pretty total." As is the case on Capitol Hill, there was also a cross-party consensus among British lawmakers when it came to China as a major strategic competitor.

President Joe Biden's election means the U.S. is now "extremely cautious, measured and united with other allies," he added. "It strengthens the U.S., U.K. and other important partners."

During his campaign, Biden had called for a "coalition of democracies" to counter China's rising influence. He followed that by appointing key national security advisers like Kurt Campbell, a veteran Asia expert who was anointed to the new position of Indo-Pacific coordinator.

In a January essay for Foreign Affairs, Campbell advocated for Prime Minister Johnson's "Democracy 10" or "D10"—comprising the G7 plus Australia, South Korea and India. Incidentally, his co-author on the piece, Rush Doshi, is now also in the Biden administration as a China policy adviser.

The View From D.C.

When it came to challenges posed by Beijing, areas of converging interests between Washington and London were many, while the areas of divergence were few, said Ryan Hass, a senior policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

"In the past, though, there have been divergent levels of risk tolerance for addressing shared concerns with China, which has placed a limit on some forms of cooperation," he noted.

Hass told Newsweek: "London may be a naturally strong partner for the United States on specific issues, such as Hong Kong and protection of freedom of navigation, given the U.K.'s history and the strength of U.K. interests in these issues.

"London's recent willingness to call for the U.N. to be granted unfettered access to investigate reports of abuse in Xinjiang also places the U.K. and the U.S. in a position to reinforce each other's efforts on this important issue."

We shouldn't wait for genocide to take action against human rights violations.
Tom Tugendhat MP

In a report on U.S.-Europe cooperation released by Yale's Paul Tsai China Center this month, Hass and others recommended ways in which Washington and European leaders could come together to address concerns ranging from China's non-market economic coercion to its intellectual property violations.

Areas of cooperation listed in the report would apply well to London as well, said Hass, who chairs Brookings groups on China, Taiwan and East Asia.

The U.K.'s shift in attitude toward Beijing was "a long time coming," said China analyst Bryce Barros, who is with the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Following Britain's decision to leave the European Union, some felt the U.K. could turn to China for more trade, but that will prove difficult in the current climate, he added.

As government looks toward its "Global Britain" foreign policy post-Brexit, potential involvement in the CPTPP trading bloc would be one to watch, said Barros. The U.K. applied for membership to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership on February 1.

Tugendhat said concerns over China's policies would make it harder for London to significantly increase its trading relationship with Beijing. Through the CRG, he has also conducted debates about the position of British financial institutions in Hong Kong.

Indo-Pacific Tilt

Later this year, the U.K. will send its flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the East China Sea via the contested South China Sea and sensitive Taiwan Strait. The decision has already led to protests from Beijing and accusations of "muscle flexing."

"This isn't about Britain exerting power," Tugendhat said of the upcoming Royal Navy deployment. "This is about us partnering with friends and allies."

"While Britain may not be a Pacific power, it has obligations and very, very close alliances in the Indo-Pacific, such as with Japan," added the lawmaker, who served 10 years in the British Army during the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan.

Barros, who studies China's malign influence—including in its diplomatic practices—said the U.S. and U.K. could jointly encourage countries in the Commonwealth to form closer ties with Taiwan, similar to what Washington has been doing with some of Taipei's few remaining official partners in the Caribbean.

Such a transatlantic partnership "could give Global Britain more of a say," he added, "however it wants to be involved in the Asia-Pacific."

While the American public has had several decades to understand the significance of the Indo-Pacific to U.S. national interests, uncertainty still clouds British public opinion on the country's own pivot to Asia.

According to a survey published this month by the British Foreign Policy Group, more than a third of Britons were "unsure about the arguments for or against such a rebalance," despite a similar number recognizing the region "will be important to global power dynamics and economic growth."

The think tank's report, compiled after 2,002 U.K. adults were polled between January 6 and 7, reflected a deep mistrust of China in 78 percent of respondents.

However, only 18 percent of Britons supported deploying U.K. security and defense resources "to contain China's aggression in the Indo-Pacific," BFPG's findings showed.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson Chairs UN Council
File photo: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs a session of the U.N. Security Council on climate and security at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on February 23, 2021, in London, England. Stefan Rousseau-WPA Pool/Getty Images