Authors: Henri Kouam & Sarmad Ishfaq
The U.S.-UK relationship will suffer a blow from the United Kingdom’s recent decision to exclude Huawei from its 5G network. Rather than taking a confrontational approach, China will raise non-tariff barriers and ensure the UK sees less favorable terms in a post-Brexit relationship. The UK should employ a more pragmatic approach that protects user data in order to ensure its companies can continue to benefit from enhanced access to Chinese markets. It must balance its geostrategic relationship in a manner that respects its relationship with the U.S. whilst ensuring a forward-looking vision enables access to prime Chinese that its dominant service sector stands to benefit from.
The United States has taken an aggressive role against Huawei and by extension China – both countries, for years, have been competing with each other economically and otherwise in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world. The United Kingdom has joined the United States in not only cautioning against Huawei, a Chinese telecom giant, but also moving to ban it from its 5G networks. While this outcome is symptomatic of China’s secrecy following the spread of COVID-19 and state-driven cyber-attacks, it equally suggests Britain’s ire for the developments in Hong Kong. The United Kingdom has officially decided to phase out Huawei equipment by 2027, joining the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. While the EU will ultimately determine the Western verdict on Huawei, it has so far remained cautious, branding China a ‘strategic rival’ and tightening domestic regulation to protect its tech companies whilst encouraging China to liberalize its economy further.
The decision to exclude Huawei from Britain will slow Huawei’s tech supremacy and global dominance. It will equally affect UK-China relations on trade, diplomatic, and environmental cooperation. While diplomatic outcomes are rather difficult to forecast, the economic relationship will be most adversely affected by recent developments. This article takes a brief look into the UK-Britain trading relationship and draws conclusions that remain cognizant of different structural characteristics in both countries.
UK-Chinese Trade Is an Anchor for Exports Across the Auto Sector, Tourism and Financial Services
China is the UK’s sixth-largest export market, accounting for 4.4% of all UK exports while imports from China represent 6.8% of total imports. This might seem marginal, of course, but the breakdown of traded goods and services suggests greater linkages between both economies. For example, the UK is a service-driven economy, which means its financial service sector, business consultancy, and even renewable energy stand to benefit from enhanced Chinese market access. The UK holds a current account deficit with China and its surplus in services trade is marginal and will likely fall as China seeks to retaliate following UK’s security-induced decision to oust Huawei from its 5G networks.
Britain’s Decision to Oust Huawei Is Less Rooted in Security and More in Ideology
At first, Britain’s decision to oust Huawei from its network seems prudent, but this is not entirely true as Britain outlined fundamental flaws in Huawei gear. However, this by no means provides sufficient grounding for its decision to exclude Huawei from their communication networks. Even so, Britain was always going to acquiesce to the United States and the Hong Kong Security Law, and the complete reneging of the Joint Declaration signed in 1984 irked Britain further. At the risk of seeming unable to impose sanctions like the U.S., it chose to reduce Huawei’s continued market access and attempts to blunt China’s global ascent in the process.
However, the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with China hinges on its treatment of Huawei and continued market access. China will not directly target UK companies at first, but it will ensure that Britain’s tech sector has little, if any access, to its markets. China is already opening new Huawei factories in France and visits by President Macron last year show the EU is continuing to improve its ties with the country even as it brands it a ‘strategic rival’.
The UK’s Room to Maneuver Is Limited and Any Challenge to the U.S. May Prove Futile
Additionally, the majority of UK trade occurs with Western economies, such as Germany and France, the majority of whom are not particularly thrilled at the idea of Brexit. China might capitalize on the UK’s exit to ensure that it becomes increasingly beholden to the United States; this might not pose a problem in the short-run, but the United States’ approach to diplomacy has become increasingly linked to economic supremacy. Any divergence on issues ranging from the Middle East to global health and economic policy could prove futile for Britain, further blunting its post-Brexit geopolitical ascent. A divergence in objectives by both countries is not imminent.
In his hearing with the House of Lords as foreign secretary, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the UK remained committed to supporting US positions in the Middle East. A pragmatic Britain should seek to use its soft-power to create a steady market for its service sector, employ a targeted approach to counter the adoption of Chinese technology across Africa and Asia, whilst using its receding influence in the U.N. security council to ensure it achieves its goals amidst the U.S.-China rivalry. The Uighurs are evidence of China’s blatant disregard of human rights and while Britain is less adept at using international institutions to thwart China’s activities, it can nonetheless serve as an anchor to the U.S. decisions over the long-run.
This is vital as the U.S. legitimacy on the global stage appears to be waning due to nationalist-driven and inward policies that seek to maintain its role as a global leader. The UK is obviously caught between a rock and a hard place; over 65% of the economy is driven by the service sector according to the Office for National Statistics. As such, while the U.S. is a stable market for its goods and services, the financial sector is bloated and crowded, whilst U.S. regulation is too opaque for start-ups seeking to cross the aisle. Furthermore, China’s need for advanced technologies amidst its geopolitical rivalry with the United States could have created a credible market for UK tech start-ups in driverless cars as well as grid management and renewable energy.
There is no shortage of companies that could benefit from additional Chinese market access — think Acceleron, Gravitricity, BBox, and Upside Energy, among others. The UK’s need to show solidarity will cost it greater competitiveness, inevitably accruing to companies that have to compete with subsidized Chinese companies. Rather than impeding trade by siding with the U.S., the UK would have been better off playing a more pragmatic diplomatic game, allowing Huawei to operate in the fringe parts of its network and ensure its counter-intelligence and the designated company in Oxford to verify Huawei’s software.
The Huawei Tensions Could Be Politicized in Scotland If China’s Economic Retaliation Disrupts Economic Activity
Finally, the impact of trade with China will transcend regional borders and could exacerbate tensions in the UK, as calls for a Scottish referendum grow increasingly justified amidst political responses that seek to support US positions over UK export-linked jobs. As illustrated in figure 3, Scotland is most exposed to the waning UK-China trade relationship, and it equally wants to remain part of the EU. While the decision by the current UK administration might be justified, it suggests that the UK is unable to verify Huawei technology, despite ranking higher than China in innovation rankings.
One can, therefore, see such an outcome as evidence of stronger US-UK ties or the inability of the former to police Chinese technology in a manner that facilitates trade between both economies amidst ideological differences. Trade flow dynamics suggest that the UK stands to benefit more from trade with China over the long-run, as its innovative goods and financial service stand to benefit from an increasingly technologically-driven and innovation-centric China. It is not clear whether the U.S. will give the UK a favorable deal even if a democrat were to win the coming elections.
As the U.S reneges its role as a global leader and latches on to the advantages conferred on it by a ubiquitous dollar and dominant clearing system, it is not evident that the UK will become increasingly linked to U.S.’s anti-China stance. Under such a scenario, it is more challenging to see a forward-looking relationship emerge amongst both countries, similar to that of the EU. In 2019, the UK joined the United States for freedom of navigation request in the Strait of Hormuz, after tensions rose following the Trump administration’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
This showed a marked divergence with Europe, which instead choose to implement a special purpose vehicle that was designed to ensure Iran continued to enjoy the benefits that were conferred on it by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As ties between Iran and China have warmed, the UK’s decision was in direct contravention to its geostrategic ambitions in the Middle East, and the recent decision on Huawei shows even further divergence to that regard. The UK’s decision to shun Huawei suggests that it has chosen to ensure continued U.S. supremacy, even as concerns around privacy are justified.
These concerns have not changed from two years ago, but the UK decision, whilst justified, appears economically counterproductive and could impede a post-Brexit relationship that would possibly improve market access for UK companies in China. Furthermore, China might design domestic legislation or employ other forms of non-tariff barriers to target U.K. companies that seek to enter their markets. A post-Brexit relationship was always going to cause consternation across the globe, but balancing diplomacy, historically-entrenched relationships, and a forward-looking economic partnership was also going to be complicated for the Johnson government whose bandwidth appears limited.
To compensate for its loss of market in the U.K. and U.S., China could leverage its relationship with countries like Pakistan, Iran, and others (especially those who are a part of the Belt & Road Initiative – BRI). China and Huawei, for example, could further penetrate the Pakistani smartphone market due to Pakistan being home to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – the star project of the BRI – as well as Pakistan being one of the most populated countries in the world. China will also retaliate by targeting sectors other than technology as Britain appears to side with the U.S. at a time when China’s influence in Asia and Africa is rising. As Britain continues to grapple with Brexit and an incoherent global strategy, China’s debt-driven development agenda in Africa is gaining traction; it is also leading 4 of the 15 U.N. specialized agencies. China will ensure Britain’s service sector comes under strain by increasing administrative bottlenecks even as they liberalize their markets and continue to open up to the global economy. As such, fewer British firms will have access to IPOs, legal work, software, etcetera as China prioritizes the EU and non-EU countries in its globalization strategy.
This will not have immediate implications for Britain over the near term, but it almost certainly will over the long-run. Britain’s decision to oust Huawei from its networks was premature and shows a lack of tech leadership, since this was an opportunity for Britain to ensure that the Chinese-based company improves its software whilst designing repellent technology, and localize data in an attempt to reduce the risks linked to data misuse. Rather than acquiesce to the U.S., Britain must prioritize its role as a global leader and balance the ideological rifts between the U.S., its largest trading partner, and China.