US top diplomat Pompeo talks China and Brexit to Britain's PM Johnson after Huawei ban

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street in London on July 21, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (REUTERS, AFP) - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed ways to tackle the growing might of China when he met Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday (July 21), just a week after London ordered a purge of Huawei gear from its 5G mobile phone network.

United States President Donald Trump lauded Mr Johnson's ban on Huawei, claiming that he had forced London's hand due to concern over China, which he considers to be the US' main geopolitical rival of the 21st century. Britain has denied that it made the decision because of American political pressure.

As Britain toughens its stance on China due to its handling of the novel coronavirus and a crackdown in Hong Kong, Mr Pompeo's visit is an attempt to stiffen Mr Johnson's resolve and dangle the potential reward of a post-Brexit free trade deal, diplomats say.

Mr Pompeo, after discussing China in the garden of Downing Street with Mr Johnson, said it was a constructive visit.

"Our two countries' longstanding, strong bilateral relationship has laid the foundation for today's candid discussion on issues ranging from 5G telecommunication to our negotiations for a US-UK free-trade agreement," Mr Pompeo said.

A British summary of the talks said the pair also discussed China's actions in Hong Kong and its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.

The United States and Britain still have more work to do on a free-trade deal, Mr Pompeo said later in the day, adding that he hoped a deal could be finalised before too long.

"A third round (of negotiations) scheduled for later this month, a primary focus for the United States is to see that we can make progress on this and bring this to a closure just as quickly as possible," he said during a brief news conference with his British counterpart Dominic Raab. "I spoke with the prime minister this morning about this, and I hope that we can get it finalised before too long.

Mr Pompeo is also due to meet Hong Kong democracy activist Nathan Law and the city's last British governor Chris Patten.

Recent months have seen Britain edge ever closer to the US in its geopolitical tug-of-war with China.

Mr Johnson's most dramatic policy reversal saw him last week order British mobile providers to stop buying 5G equipment from Huawei, the world's biggest telecoms equipment maker, starting from next year and to remove existing gear by 2027.

The Chinese foreign ministry responded by accusing Britain of becoming "America's dupe".

Beijing says the West - and Washington in particular - is gripped by anti-Chinese hysteria and colonial thinking about the communist state.

China, whose US$15 trillion (S$20.8 trillion) economy is five times the size of Britain's, says the decision to exclude Huawei, the world's biggest telecoms equipment manufacturer, will hurt Britain's economy, set back trade and discourage investment.

London has also outraged Beijing by offering nearly three million residents of Hong Kong a pathway to British citizenship in response to a highly controversial security law that China imposed on the former British colony last month.

Britain followed that up on Monday by suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extending an arms embargo of "potentially lethal weapons" that had previously applied only to mainland China.

The range of steps taken by Mr Johnson in the past month threaten to bring an early end to a "golden decade" in cooperation that former British finance minister George Osborne promised on a visit to Beijing in 2015.

Despite Britain's recent alignment with the US, some tensions between London and Washington remain.

Mr Johnson is keen to avoid being too closely associated with Mr Trump - whose approval in Britain is languishing at around 20 per cent - despite the "special relationship" between the two historical allies.

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday that he plans to visit China this year for talks on "crisis communications".

His comments come as the US takes a tougher stance against Beijing in the disputed South China Sea.

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