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Foreign Policy

Despite Trump’s UK Visit, the “Special Relationship” Faces Trouble

Jun 18 , 2019
  • Dong Yifan

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

US president Donald Trump wrapped up his second trip to the UK in June, his first state visit there during his tenure and also his first visit to European countries this year.

Both Trump and UK have attached great importance to this trip, with Queen Elizabeth II serving a lavish state dinner for Trump and accompanying him to a series of events including the D-day commemoration in Portsmouth. Trump said that he “had a great time” with the Queen and praised her as “an incredible lady” during an interview with Fox News after his European journey.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly during Trump’s visit, except that thousands gathered in central London to protest Trump’s presidency. He also faced criticism from Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader who boycotted the state dinner.

This seemingly ideal arrangement for Trump reflects the UK’s unprecedented demand for a closer “special relationship.” After the Brexit referendum in 2016, the UK is set to lose EU membership, one of the diplomatic pillars of the post-war World War II world — its influence on European and global affairs will diminish.

A hard Brexit is becoming more of a real possibility since Theresa May’s deal was voted down by Parliament three times, ending with her choice to step down as Prime Minister under huge pressure from within her Tory party. Therefore, closer transatlantic economic relations would help the UK offset the economic damage caused by the changing UK-EU trade ties. That was also the reason why Theresa May became the first foreign leader to visit the US, in February 2017 shortly after Trump took the office.

But the US by no means sees eye to eye with UK on how to develop the special relationship. Under his “America First” worldview, Trump tends to tap the full potential of US allies, to the point of achieving America’s own goals at the expense of UK.

Britain, on the contrary, hopes that it can build balanced and mutually respectful relations with the US based on their core of shared values, common interests, and multilateral mechanisms forged after World War II. May presented Trump with a framed, typewritten draft of the Atlantic Charter, while the Queen said that the two countries were forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures during the state dinner at Buckingham Palace. In fact, the UK has disagreements with US unilateral behaviors on many issues, such as climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, NATO, and the international economic order.

As for bilateral issues, there are two main points of tension between the two countries. First of all, the US has repeatedly interfered in Britain’s domestic politics. Trump criticized the Brexit deal agreed by Theresa May and the EU, and advised the UK to choose no-deal Brexit to avoid budget burden and migrant waves. Trump also expressed that he favored a hard Brexit, giving his public support to former leading figures of the Brexit campaign such as ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said that he would seek to intervene in the debate before Corbyn had a chance to become prime minister, because of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.

Secondly, the US has put “America First” as its core principle while negotiating a trade deal with the UK. The US not only attempted to include agricultural products in the trade deal framework, but also asked the UK to reform its National Health Service (NHS) to offer the US more business opportunities for its own medical services and pharmaceutical industry.

However, British politicians and society would not satisfy US demands to accept the low standards and prices of US agriculture products, and certainly refused to dismantle the NHS, the most beloved part of the UK’s welfare system. American Ambassador Woody Johnson said that healthcare would need to be on the table in any future trade talks, which only made a fully-fledged deal all the more difficult. To maximize its economic interest, the US is taking advantage of the UK’s urgent need to get a trade deal with other countries in the post-Brexit era.

Since the UK still relies heavily on US, especially in terms of traditional security cooperation and intelligence sharing, it will face a more complex situation amid the China-U.S. strategic competition.

The UK needs to obtain more economic momentum from emerging countries like China to hedge against potential shocks brought by Brexit and embrace global engagement. Together with China, UK hopes to maintain a rule-based international trade order and a stable global economic environment.

As for 5G technologies, the UK doesn’t want to sacrifice the chance to develop its IT and communication sector by blocking Chinese companies like Huawei. However, security and intelligence cooperation with US remains vital national interest for UK. If the US threatens again to curb or even sever those ties in order to keep the UK in its own camp on issues like the China-US trade conflict and Huawei, the UK will presumably have to take the US side and halt its cooperation with Huawei. As the Brexit process drags on, it will only become more difficult for the UK to strike a balance between the two countries.

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