In Depth

The future of the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the US

Disagreements over Huawei and Iran have strained the ties between Western allies

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described Boris Johnson’s move to allow Huawei a “limited role” in building Britain’s 5G network as a “momentous decision”. 

According to the Financial Times, Pompeo is “expected to have a frank exchange of views” with the prime minister over the decision after flying into London today.

The very public disagreement between the UK and US over Chinese technology company Huawei comes at a “sensitive time” in the so-called “special relationship” between the two countries, the newspaper adds.

Indeed, following a series of disputes in recent months, questions are being raised about the future ties between the historic allies. 

Trump’s way or the Huawei

President Donald Trump has warned that allowing Huawei access to the UK’s 5G network could pose a threat to national security, and views Johnson’s decision as a “craven surrender of national sovereignty over data to the Chinese state”, says the FT.

Republican senator Tom Cotton has said that working with Huawei is “like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War”, says The Independent, while Pompeo tweeted that “only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign” going forward.

As the Independent reports, Johnson risked Trump’s “wrath” by deciding to pursue a deal with Huawei, with the president previously hinting that the decision could “cast into question American willingness to share intelligence” with the UK.

The decision also comes at a time when the UK is on the cusp of leaving the European Union and would like to be cultivating the special relationship, rather than harming it. s Axios reports, Johnson’s call could “profoundly harm” the dynamic between America and Britain, potentially damaging future trade discussions.

So what has the fallout been? 

According to The Telegraph, Johnson has already made moves to “heal the rift” between the two countries. 

The paper reports that Johnson told Trump that “he will never again allow Britain to become reliant on Chinese technology”, assuring the president that “Britain would work with the US to ‘break the dominance’ of companies like Huawei”. 

The PM also paid lip service to the US, saying that Huawei’s share of the 5G market will be capped at 35% for each of Britain’s four mobile phone operators.

This appears to have soothed tensions, with senior US figures telling The Guardian that while Washington was “disappointed”, the US-UK security and economic relationship is considered to be “too important to jeopardise”. 

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What is the future of the ‘special relationship’?

On this occasion, Johnson has avoided a full-blown confrontation with Washington. But the dispute is indicative of the shifting sands on which the two countries’ relationship is built. 

As the New Statesman highlights, the choice to allow the Chinese tech company into the British market shows the UK “sticking ever closer to the European consensus, even as it claims to be deepening alliances with old friends”, aka the US.

“At the moment it suits both the Trump administration and Johnson’s government to sell the two countries as best of buds,” the magazine notes.

However, on back-to-back foreign policy decisions – Huawei and previously the Iran nuclear deal – “the UK looks at the US, and decides it has more in common with the Europeans”.

As the FT notes, Trump is also unhappy at a plan for a digital services tax that will heavily hit US technology companies. “His administration has threatened tariffs on UK car exports,” the paper reports, but Johnson has held his ground.  

Back in July 2019, Trump said that Johnson was “a really good man”. “He’s tough and he’s smart,” Trump said, “they call him ‘Britain Trump’ and people are saying that’s a good thing.”

Whether Trump’s warm feelings towards the PM will last remains to be seen.

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