Unilateralism Won’t Help Global Britain

As post-Brexit Britain seeks to redefine its foreign policy, the country has taken a strong stand to condemn human rights’ violations and reject Chinese 5G technology. While a step in the right direction, the UK missed the opportunity to lead a coordinated multilateral response.

Alexander Peter and Alistair Somerville
August 06, 2020

In the midst of a vast crisis at home, the British government has turned to bold action abroad in recent weeks. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s weak response to the coronavirus pandemic has left the UK with the highest death toll in Europe, his government has taken the lead in the fight against the new national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party state in Beijing. 

A number of foreign policy decisions in the past month represent the first meaningful articulation of “Global Britain”: the UK’s attempt to redefine its international engagement after Brexit. Thomas Wright, an expert at the Brookings Institution, went as far as describing these latest moves as “green shoots” in a new foreign policy. 

Under Johnson and his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, the UK has offered British citizenship to three million Hongkongers and has suspended its extradition treaty with China. Meanwhile, the government vowed to remove Huawei 5G technology from UK infrastructure and Raab rolled out  a ‘Magnitsky’-style sanctions regime, known as the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations, to target individuals involved in human rights violations across the world. 

While this is a clear step forward for a government struggling to develop a new vision for Britain’s global role, a coordinated multilateral response alongside allies and partners, with the UK at the helm, would have been a more effective approach. 

As the other signatory to the 1984 Joint Declaration with China that initiated the “one country, two systems” approach in Hong Kong—which the new law has effectively brought to an end—the UK government has used its position as a former colonial power in Hong Kong for good through its stand against authoritarianism. The government  articulated its intention to use its foreign policy to stand up for human rights and democratic values.

Raab’s new sanctions regime, which targets primarily Russian and Saudi nationals, in addition to two Myanmar military generals and two organizations that have engaged in forced labor, torture, and murder in North Korea’s gulags, reinforces this effort across several regions. 

This new sanctions law, which has cross-party support in Parliament, is an important step in the “Global Britain” agenda. It adds bite through sanctions to the rhetorical commitment to human rights in Hong Kong. While the sanctions list does not currently target Chinese nationals or organizations, members of Parliament are lobbying for their addition. These calls will likely grow, as the Chinese government continues to clampdown on Uighur Muslims. Ambassador Liu Xiaoming did not help China’s case  when he failed to respond convincingly in a BBC interview to drone footage of Chinese security forces ushering shaved, cuffed Uighur Muslims into trains in the Xinjiang region.

These calls come as the UK grows increasingly wary of China’s influence and the risk its involvement in the UK economy may pose. The announcement to remove Huawei, a Chinese technology firm with links to the Communist Party, from Britain’s 5G networks by the end of 2027, sends a clear message. The Johnson government is ready to leave behind a foreign policy that decoupled humanitarian concerns about Hong Kong, from a desire for favorable economic ties with China, as David Cameron’s government attempted to do. 

While Johnson is right to take a stand on China, his latest actions show disregard for coordination with the UK’s allies. The Magnitsky law was the UK’s first attempt to impose sanctions outside the UN or EU framework. Are unilateral sanctions a sign of things to come? While no coordination with the EU was technically necessary, the decision to pursue sanctions presented an opportunity for the UK to work with close allies to lead a joint sanctions response against China. Instead, the government acted alone, perhaps out of concern for the political backlash among the Conservatives’ base that cooperation with the EU might have provoked. 

For the UK’s commitments to human rights to have a global impact, the country must coordinate with others and play a leadership role in the process. As analysis from the Center for a New American Security has shown, multilateral sanctions are invariably more effective than unilateral ones, especially when used for specific and targeted ends.  

The government should also have taken a multilateral approach to provide protection and refuge for Hongkongers. Unilateral measures by Australia, Canada, and Taiwan, have offered permanent residency to Hongkongers, suspended an extradition treaty, and established a support office. These similar, but isolated steps, show that the UK  missed an opportunity to lead a multilateral response to protect Hongkongers. The UK could have leveraged its position as a signatory of the Joint Declaration to lead a coalition of countries in offering Hongkongers clear options for emigration from China and worked with its allies to accept a certain number of Hongkongers and provide a path to permanent residency or citizenship. 

Such action would have shown real "global" leadership, and would have enjoyed democratic legitimacy at home, given the UK public’s continued support for British involvement in multilateral institutions. In spite of the vote to leave the European Union, three quarters of British citizens support continued British leadership in multilateral fora  and cooperation with other Commonwealth nations. As former UK Foreign Secretary David Owen argued in Foreign Policy magazine at the end of June, the best way to approach the Hong Kong question is through multilateral channels at the UN or an international contact group emerging from the G7 countries. 

The proposed D-10 group presents the right opportunity. Championed by Johnson, the D-10 would be a new group of 10 leading democracies: The current G-7 members, in addition to South Korea, India, and Australia. Currently conceived as a group to address both 5G mobile communications and vulnerable supply chains, the grouping is the perfect environment to organize effective multilateral action that is manageable (with only ten members) but hits hard. The D-10 would bring together several countries willing to hold China, and other countries, accountable for human rights violations and also provide a post-Brexit UK with the opportunity to take the lead in fostering closer economic ties with its allies. Going forward, a multilateral approach with this group of countries would not only maximize the UK’s influence, but also help to insulate it from aggressive authoritarian countermeasures, which China has already threatened

Trapped in an increasing competition between the United States, the EU, and China, a truly global Britain must adopt a leading yet collaborative role in order to exert influence. The Hong Kong proposal, Magnitsky sanctions, and the Huawei decision all demonstrate that the UK’s best path forward is as a leader in multilateralism. The D-10 is a starting point, but the unilateralism of recent weeks undermines that ambition. As a middle power with a permanent  seat at the multilateral top table through the UN Security Council—and a soft power leader —the UK is well-positioned for this role.

Alexander Peter is co-author of the report “Strategic Re-engagement: Advancing U.S. Leadership in Multilateral Diplomacy,” published by Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a former section editor for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. In October, he will join the UK Civil Service. Find him on Twitter @apeter9175

Alistair Somerville is the publications editor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He is the author of the recent report, “Steering HMS Global Britain.” Find him on Twitter @apsomerville