As the pride of the British fleet prepares to sail to the South China Seas, MARK MARDELL offers a timely analysis of what ‘Global Britain’ might actually mean.
There’s little that says ‘Global Britain’ so well as traveling halfway around the world to deliver the message “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!”
The Royal Navy’s latest pride and joy, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, will soon journey 20,000 miles, straight into the world’s most febrile flash point, the disputed waters of the South China Seas.
The prime minister declares it “the most ambitious deployment for two decades”. When Gavin Williamson was still defence secretary he predicted the trip would project “hard power” and enhance Britain’s “reach and lethality”.
The new fleet flagship will be at the heart of a multi-national carrier strike force surrounded by “a ring of steel’ from the US Navy. The Americans too will supply some of the war planes on its decks – the F-35s of the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, the ‘Wake Island Avengers’. According to its makers, the jet is the “most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft in the world”.
Whether you are by now salivating at the thought of all this gleaming hardware ploughing through the sparkling Pacific seas, quaking with fear at the possibility of a confrontation with the world’s rising superpower or simply falling about laughing over civilian boy politicians’ love of toys, is a matter of politics and temperament.
But it is no accident it is happening now. As the head of the Royal Navy, First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin says the exercise is “very much the floating embodiment of Global Britain”.
What else is bobbing about on the waves in Brexit’s wake has been unveiled in this week’s long-awaited, somewhat delayed, foreign policy review, ‘Global Britain’ which declares the UK is “uniquely international in its outlook and interests”.
Coined in 1997 as the name of an anti-EU pressure group, ‘Global Britain’ could be seen as a brand attempting to hogtie imperial nostalgia to a future role for the country via a revitalised trans-Atlantic alliance. There’s an odd mix of pretty clear-sighted analysis of the world’s greatest problems and Britain’s strengths and a very Borisish, boosterish attempt to dash pessimism about the Western alliance and the UK’s place in the world.
Central is the idea that Britain is a “Force for Good”. Tellingly those are Downing Street’s capitals, not mine. All of a piece then, with the prime minister’s image of our country as Clark Kent, entering a phone booth (sadly, not a red phone box) ripping off his glasses and emerging in flowing cape as Superman, if still something short of a superpower.
This is all very well. But it is all rather thrown into question by the prime minister’s distinct aversion to conceding that sometimes Britain may have been a Force for Bad, or even has a Distinctly Mixed Legacy. This isn’t about breast beating – it matters because if Good is defined as anything your country does, especially when linked to Force, then you don’t really know what Bad is either.
The prime minister told the Commons on Tuesday that the review rejects the “cramped horizons” of a regional foreign policy in favour of a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”.
Other ideas have already been trailed heavily in previous speeches.
He is to be applauded for using the bully pulpit of the UN last month to deliver a lecture on the hard, practical virtues of tackling climate change, even if he did feel the need to cover his right flank with a declaration that this isn’t about giving in to the whims of “a bunch of tree-hugging tofu munchers”.
Top marks too for suggesting that the world should prepare for the next pandemics and show unity and generosity in dealing with this one. No need to mutter anything about getting it right the first time.
But that Force in the “Force for Good” is central. ‘Global Britain’ is after all a “foreign policy, defence, security and international development review”. Our history does place a premium on military power – maybe not every problem is a nail, but our politicians still lust after the huge hammers of yore. And if you are not too bothered about where all that “lethality” might lead it does make sense to play to existing strengths.
Once at a British embassy party in Washington a diplomat told me “if you want to know about the ‘special relationship’ look around you”. He meant all those bemedaled men and women in uniforms, clutching their glasses of white wine and miniature fish ’n chips, were at the heart of it. It may be a misplaced British conceit that the US values our military and intelligence cooperation so highly, but it is a perception that drives policy at the highest level. The UK is increasing its defence spending by £24 billion and revelling in the development of sexier ways of killing people, such as AI, bigger drones and laser weapons, not to mention all those extra nukes.
But in Boris’ vision sea power is a vital symbol.
It was no accident that the prime minister, a little over a year ago, gave his first post-Brexit foreign policy speech in Greenwich, home of the Cutty Sark, in the Painted Hall of the Old Naval College, declaring “above and around us you can see the anchors, cables, rudders, sails, oars, ensigns, powder barrels, sextants, the compasses and the grappling irons”.
Then, his point was the UK would emerge as a defender of free trade in a Trumpian world of tariff wars, suffering the first Covid blows to open borders.
More recently the First Sea Lord put the case for his service being the future, not the past. “The threats that we face, the relentless growth of commercial shipping volumes, climate change opening up new trade routes, the need to influence, protect our values and where necessary compete, all of these once again are focused on the world’s oceans.”
The Queen Elizabeth’s voyage is part of a winder UK pivot to Asia. The application to join the 11 nation Pacific trade bloc is on the face of it so bizarre that it is obviously intended as whacking great symbol of something or other. Exactly what is less certain.
We can claim to be an Atlantic nation, a North Sea nation, heaven forbid, a Cross-Channel nation, but geography dictates we are more than 7,000 miles away from being a Pacific nation. Apart from a marginal economic advantage the message is the thing.
Once again linking arms, as Boris Johnson suggests, with those Commonwealth nations “on whom we deliberately turned our backs in the early 1970s”? Making the point we are not against trading blocs per se? Or perhaps, it’s more about fingers crossed Biden rejoins the group Trump undercut and abandoned? Probably all of the above, but above all a daring, Superman-like, attempt to defy gravity. One hopes, if so, this will be spelled out in the policy review.
The ‘gravity model’ is the contention that most of a nation’s trade will always be with countries which are physically close. There is some evidence that Brexiteers may have spotted a growing trend away from this – both China and the USA trade more with each other than anyone else and many African countries trade more with both of them and European countries than their near neighbours.
But it may be a while before Peru and Mexico replace France and Germany in lists of UK’s top trade partners (though perhaps not as long as expected if the decline in European trade continues to plummet at the rate it did in January). To put it in a slightly less sneery way, Japan is currently number 11, sandwiched between fellow non-EU Europeans Switzerland and Norway.
So, a flag of intent. The Pacific partnership itself is a riposte to the growing economic, and political, clout of Beijing.
Over the last decade, the UK’s China strategy has been all over the place, moving from George Osbourne’s trade-driven “golden era” to the current shift to a more nuanced approach which stresses “China’s increasing international assertiveness” and aims to improve “our ability to respond to the systemic challenge that it poses to our security, prosperity and values”. This falls way short of mirroring the rare bipartisan consensus of increasing hostility to China in Washington. Still, where DC leads, the HMS Queen Elizabeth is following.
We can only hope this isn’t mindless shadowing and there is a better thought-through strategy than is evident in the review.
Threading this needle is devilishly difficult. A tough, and utterly justified, approach to Chinese excess in Xinjiang, Tibet or Hong Kong may well lead to harsh words, a worsening diplomatic atmosphere with the danger of economic consequences. But not of near misses on the high seas.
Freedom of navigation in the South China Seas and around Taiwan in particular are very different. It is easy to dither between two statements. Conflict between the US and China over Taiwan is unthinkable. Conflict between the US and China over Taiwan is unavoidable eventually unless one side dramatically backs down.
In the famous formulation known as the Thucydides trap, war is the likely but not inevitable outcome when a rising power meets a declining one.
There’s probably a lot in the argument that showing resolution and resolve now sends a message that prevents worse in the future. There’s also something in the view that poking an increasingly assertive and nationalistic China in its tenderest spots in the year that sees the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the communist party is a bit of a risk.
It would be good to know how Biden’s White House views the erudite, intriguing and ultimately pretty hawkish ‘longer telegram’ published by US think tank the Atlantic Council in January. Written by an anonymous a senior former official, it sets out out a far-ranging China strategy, which boils down to confronting president Xi, rather than CCP rule. Pentagon planners may be heeding the mildly stated but truly alarming observation that the USA can win a war now – but may not be able to in the future.
“US strategy must understand that China remains for the time being highly anxious about military conflict with the United States, but that this attitude will change as the military balance shifts over the next decade,” the document says. Chillingly, it goes on: “Careful strategic judgments will need to be made by the United States about when and how to confront China militarily in the South China Sea.”
This may well be correct. The fear is that while the authors of ‘Global Britain’ will be well aware of these choices, our politicians, even after Iraq, feel the US alliance is worth nearly any price, and British voters, ill-informed about China by most of the media won’t get near to debating them.
The aircraft carrier about to set off on its long and perilous voyage into the jaws of the Thucydides trap is named not for our current Queen but for Gloriana. Its badge is a Tudor Rose, celebrating the days when England began its maritime adventures which lead eventually to a truly Global Britain.
The new territories were something of a consolation prize for the steady loss of continental real estate, although disengagement from Europe was never an option. It still isn’t.
In the 101-page review there’s scant mention of Europe, beyond the statement that “we will work with the EU where our interests coincide” – and won’t where they don’t. The new strategy seems to duck this central conundrum: if Global Britain is to mean more than one clever paper and a lot of gung-ho piffle it needs to be addressed urgently.
It is fair enough to argue the Commonwealth, the USA and the Pacific region are all a vital part of what you might call the Global West. But given the prime minister’s clearly stated ambition to strengthen this alliance, working out how to remain close friends and allies with those you’ve just spurned and rejected should have been a core part of it.
And we all know Boris’ problem is that he is a master of the colourful image, useless at carrying through, clueless at strategy outside winning campaigns.
‘Future nostalgia’ is great album but will be less good as a foreign policy. China, the USA and the UK all have one thing in common – they are driven by a perception of lost greatness, and a need to redeem themselves with its re-capture while preening about being a Global Force for Good.
In our case, Clark Kent might be better keeping his spectacles firmly on his nose to see the world as it is, rather than attempting to emerge as Superman, let alone a superpower reborn.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to be accompanied by two Type 45 destroyers, two Type 23 frigates, two Royal Fleet Auxiliary logistics vessels, a submarine, an American destroyer, and a frigate of the Royal Netherlands Navy. It is also expected to be joined by a frigate from the Royal Australian Navy, as well as vessels from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.
China has warned against the mission. A defence spokesman said: “The South China Sea should not become a sea of great power rivalry dominated by weapons and warships. The real source of militarisation in the South China Sea comes from countries outside this region sending their warships thousands of kilometres from home to flex muscles.”
In 2018, assault ship HMS Albion was challenged by a Chinese frigate and two helicopters during freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea. Local media report that both sides remained calm during the encounter and the Royal Navy ship continued on course despite protests from China.
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