Joe Biden and Boris Johnson met for the first time on Thursday ahead of the G7 summit, after much media discourse highlighted the White House’s concerns over Northern Ireland and the president’s scorn for the PM in the past. But as Biden’s US prioritises building an anti-Chinese alliance, analysts say it finds Britain much more likeminded than Germany or France – demonstrating that there was substance beneath the “special relationship” smiles.
Biden’s relationship with the British prime minister got off to a rocky start before he entered the White House when he disparaged Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump. The populist ex-US president hardly smoothed the path for Johnson’s relationship with any Democratic successor – falsely claiming in 2019 that the UK PM is nicknamed “Britain Trump”.Northern Ireland was expected to be the Biden-Johnson flashpoint. Biden makes a big deal of his (partly) Irish Catholic heritage, so it was unsurprising that the US embassy in London expressed last week “grave concern” over the intensifying UK-EU Northern Ireland dispute. Pundits foresaw Biden pressing Johnson to uphold the Brexit deal as the PM seeks changes to address unionist grievances in the UK province.But after a meeting characterised by effusive expressions of shared priorities – as well as a Biden riff about the importance of the “special relationship” – journalists asked the PM if the president had expressed alarm about Northern Ireland. Johnson said: “No, he didn’t.”Washington ‘obsessed with China’It is not so surprising that Biden avoided Northern Ireland because major US interests are not at stake, suggested Richard Whitman, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent.“The UK hasn’t been as good as it could have been at explaining what it’s trying to do – at using public diplomacy to remind Washington that the republican community is not the only group in Northern Ireland with its own priorities and views about how to maintain peace,” he said. Nevertheless, Whitman underlined, “this issue has been subject to a greater degree of magnification that in deserves”.By contrast, the Biden’s focus on China can hardly be magnified enough. His administration emphasised from the start that its international priority is the amplifying geopolitical rivalry with China. Hence Washington’s G7 push for its European partners to rally alongside against Beijing.“I don’t think people realise just how important China is in everything that Washington does now,” said Robert Singh, a professor of American politics at Birkbeck University, London. “It’s become fashionable in some quarters to think that a new Cold War is nonsense and that it’s the preserve of foreign policy hawks; the remnants of neoconservatism. But I don’t buy that. Everybody you talk to in Washington is obsessed with China.”UK hawkish China preoccupies many in Westminster too. After wooing China as an export market and investment source under then PM David Cameron in the early 2010s, the UK enacted a volte-face.Tory backbench organisation the China Research Group – founded in April 2020 by two influential Conservative MPs, Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien – has pressured Johnson’s government into an increasingly hawkish line on China.The pressure group soon got the kind of change it wants. Britain had allowed in early 2020 Chinese tech firm Huawei a role in supplying the country’s 5G infrastructure, despite US protestations. But the government U-turned later the same year, ordering telecoms companies to stop installing Huawei 5G equipment by September 2021 and allowing plans to remove all of it by 2027.Then the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published in March set out a new long-term British agenda – in large part focused on countering China’s “systemic challenge to our security, prosperity and values”, while seeing climate change as one potential area for co-operation with Beijing. The UK will “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”, the report said.Britain aims to provide the “broadest and most integrated presence in the region” of any European country in close co-operation with the US and the UK’s Asian and Oceanic allies, the Integrated Review said. Accordingly, the UK announced in April that it will send its biggest Royal Navy fleet deployment since the 1982 Falklands War to the Indo-Pacific.“There’s definitely a growing geostrategic consensus between the UK and the US, especially when it comes to China,” Whitman said. “And the UK carrier group steaming its way east shows Washington that London is coming up with actions, not just words.”Britain’s radical overhaul of its China policy since the Cameron years comes from a “certain amount of following the US”, but even more so from a “crystallisation of the UK’s thinking”, Whitman continued. “The UK has come to the end of a long, hard look at its relationship with China. There’s been a strong push for a tougher stance within the Conservative Party – but it’s also cross-parliamentary, with a significant proportion of the Labour Party agreeing that Britain needs to strongly oppose China’s treatment of the Uighurs, for example.”Germany’s ‘geopolitical constipation’In light of this, it is telling that Biden proposed to Johnson – not an EU leader – that democratic nations develop an alternative to China’s Belt-and-Road international infrastructure project in March.Indeed, the EU’s China stance has differed markedly from the UK’s over the past year. A month after Biden beat Trump, the EU Commission announced a “Comprehensive Agreement on Trade” with China. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was seen as the deal’s key architect, backed by French President Emmanuel Macron.The agreement’s critics argued that – although influential firms like German carmakers would benefit – European leaders were being naïve about the strength of Chinese commitments on forced labour and technology transfers. Many in Washington were dismayed that the EU effectively rebuffed the incoming Biden administration’s calls for it to consult with the new White House about European economic relations with China.Then in May, the EU Parliament suspended the deal after Beijing imposed sanctions on several MEPs and European researchers specialising in China.“It was a big shock to the Brussels beltway when China enacted those sanctions,” Whitman said. However, there is still a “big gap between where the US is coming from on China, which is also where the UK now finds itself, and where the EU stands”, he continued.“A lot of EU thinking about China has focused on its rise as an economic opportunity; there’s been a lot of short-term thinking and wishful long-term thinking,” Whitman added. “Germany in particular suffers from a kind of geopolitical constipation; it finds it very difficult to think geopolitically and has long thought of China as just an export market, not as a competitor.”British financial services companies as well as German and French manufacturers have found a lucrative export market in China. But it has been “easier” for the UK government to subordinate economic interests to political concerns because it has fresh experience of doing so – having “already thrown the City of London under the bus” by pursuing a Brexit deal that shuts the financial sector out of the European single market – argued Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.‘A pattern that’s gone on for decades’Amid their agreement that China is much more of competitor than an export market, it augurs well for the Biden-Johnson relationship that there is a rich history of US presidents and British prime ministers starting off uneasily before growing closer because they see eye-to-eye on the major international questions.Tony Blair was doubtful that he would bond with George W. Bush after enjoying a close relationship with his predecessor on the other side of the US party divide, Bill Clinton – then Blair’s impassioned response to 9/11 heralded their shared “War on Terror”. Likewise, George H.W. Bush started off keen to move on from his Ronald Reagan’s famous friendship with Margaret Thatcher, favouring then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl as his European special relationship – until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in late 1990 and it was the Iron Lady who Bush leaned on for advice.“It’s a pattern that’s gone on for decades; Washington since Bush Senior has had transitions in which London thinks it’s going to lose out to Berlin and Paris,” Singh said. “He thought that with German reunification, Kohl was the person to bet on; Thatcher was seen as yesterday’s woman. But then the US had to take action and found the UK was its most reliable ally.”“For all the frictions and for all the UK’s diminishing activity in many areas, London is still useful to Washington in that way,” Singh concluded. “Biden never had a choice; Johnson never had a choice: You’ve just got to get on.”