U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson Tuesday as tensions escalated between the United States and China over trade, the status of the South China Sea, the origins of the novel coronavirus and the Chinese response to the virus when it first emerged in the city of Wuhan.
The London visit by America’s top diplomat came just days after Johnson decided, on security grounds, to prohibit Chinese tech giant Huawei from participating in the development of Britain’s fast-speed 5G phone network — a ban Washington had been urging for more than year.
After finishing his initial talks, Pompeo tweeted, “Constructive visit with @BorisJohnson today. Our two countries’ long-standing, strong bilateral relationship has laid the foundation for today’s candid discussion on issues ranging from 5G telecommunication to our negotiations for a U.S.-UK free trade agreement.”
In a press conference later Pompeo praised Britain for its tough line on Huawei and Hong Kong. “I wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate the British government for its principled responses to these challenges. You made a sovereign decision to ban Huawei computer 5g networks.”
He added: “We want every nation to work together to push back against the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts in every dimension that I described to you today that certainly includes the United Kingdom includes every country, we hope we can build out a coalition that understands this.”
The two Western allies appear to be increasingly seeing eye-to-eye about the challenges posed by the Chinese government, say analysts and Western diplomats. On his arrival in the British capital, Pompeo tweeted that he was looking forward to meeting with Johnson “as we tackle our most pressing global issues in combating COVID-19 and addressing our shared security challenges.” COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Pompeo and Johnson observed social distancing guidelines while in the Downing Street garden. “Hope you appreciate the social distancing,” Johnson told journalists gathered there. “Social distance does not imply diplomatic or political distance,” the British leader added.
Analysts say Pompeo wants to capitalize on Britain’s hardening line toward Beijing. The Huawei ban was a major policy U-turn for Britain which has been trying to walk a tight rope between Washington, its long-stranding traditional ally, and Beijing, which it has been courting heavily since the 2016 Brexit vote in the hope of securing a lucrative trade deal.
The outright confrontation between Washington and Beijing in the wake of the coronavirus has made a balancing act even harder to pull off, say former British diplomats. Beijing’s increasingly aggressive moves in the South China Sea, where it is alarming its neighbors with expansive territorial claims, is also prompting a cross-party political backlash in Britain.
This week Britain announced it was suspending an extradition agreement with Hong Kong because of a draconian Beijing-imposed security law on the former British colony. The British and Chinese governments have been trading increasingly acrimonious barbs since the Chinese government launched a crackdown earlier this year on Hong Kong — a move the British say breaches a deal the two countries struck in 1997 for the handover of the territory to China.
Britain has also imposed an arms embargo on Hong Kong, banning the export of equipment that could be used for “internal repression.” Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, who also met with Pompeo, told the House of Commons Monday that the measures were a “necessary and proportionate response” to the new security law, which Britain says is being used to outlaw dissent. “The UK is watching and the whole world is watching,” Raab told lawmakers.
China responded to Monday’s announcement by warning that Britain would “bear the consequences” of its actions. “Now the UK side has gone even further down the wrong road in disregard of China’s solemn position and repeated representations,” a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in London said. He added,“ China urges the UK side to immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs, in any form.”
Australia and Canada suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong earlier this month, and the United States ended preferential economic treatment for the territory, while also imposing sanctions on Chinese officials. China has taken retaliatory steps.
British officials have started to echo more volubly long-standing American grievances about Beijing’s treatment of China’s Muslim Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in northwest China. Since 2015, more than a million Uighurs have been detained in what Chinese officials describe as “vocational education centers” for job training, but critics and rights campaigners describe as internment or concentration camps, part of an effort to forcibly assimilate the Uighurs.
The ban on Huawei has angered Beijing and retaliation is almost a certainty. Chinese officials say the ban has wrecked any chances of Beijing agreeing to a wide-ranging free trade deal with Britain, something London has been hoping would come in compensating for the likely commercial losses the country will suffer from Brexit.
British companies such as AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Burberry and Jaguar Land Rover, which have large investments in China, are bracing for retaliation. With a Chinese trade deal likely off the table, a favorable post-Brexit agreement with the U.S. is of even greater urgency for Britain, say analysts.
A senior Chinese official accused Britain of pandering to Washington shortly after Pompeo landed in London. “We do not want to see the tit-for-tat between China and the U.S. happen in China-U.K. relations,” the Chinese ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, tweeted.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday hailed Johnson’s Huawei ban as Pompeo set off for Britain.
Pompeo is scheduled also to meet in London with Hong Kong democracy activist Nathan Law, who fled China recently, and Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong. Patten is a former Conservative minister who has become increasingly critical of China and advocates confrontation with Beijing.
In a recent press interview, he said Britain and other Western countries had been naive in thinking they could tame China’s Communist leaders by “cozying up” to them. He said successive Western governments had fallen for a myth about China “that somehow at the end of all the kowtowing there’s this great pot of gold waiting for us… We keep on kidding ourselves that unless we do everything that China wants we will somehow miss out on great trading opportunities. It’s drivel,” he added.