It is billed as a once-in-a-generation review of Britain’s foreign policy and defense strategies. ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’, Boris Johnson’s ‘new chapter’ for Britain, identifies two main adversaries: Russia — an ‘acute threat’ — and China — a ‘systemic competitor’. And while it nods at a geopolitical ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific, the more hawkish Tory MPs are disappointed, thinking Beijing should have also counted as a threat. They should perhaps be careful what they wish for.
The UK prime minister is sending more than harsh words in China’s direction. In two months’ time, the Royal Navy will send a battle fleet to Asia for the first time since the start of the Korean War in 1950. One of the navy’s two new £6 billion ($8.4 billion) aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will head up an allied task force in what’s described as a British ‘pivot’ to the Indo-Pacific with ‘a greater and more persistent presence’ there ‘than any other European country’.
The extent of Britain’s new naval mission is still unspecified but as in the Pacific War, America will be providing logistics. Joint naval exercises may also take place with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. Further operations are expected with the United States and Japanese navies. They will inevitably sail through the South China Sea, which China illegally claims as its very own pond. Protests from China are sure to follow.
The British naval expedition may well also venture into the East China Sea on its mooted exercises, with the Royal Navy sailing through the Strait of Taiwan. Astonishingly, Taiwan isn’t mentioned in the review, but if China seeks to invade its neighbor in the next few years — a very real possibility — the question is whether America and Britain would come to its aid. The less likely the West is to help, the more likely China is to push its luck.
Joe Biden is mindful of this. He has declared America’s commitment to Taiwan is ‘rock solid’ and sent USS John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, through the Taiwan Strait. A Pentagon spokesman said this showed a ‘commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific… [to] continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows’ — which also appears to be the mission statement of the British expeditionary force. For its part, the Chinese air force conducted a simulated strike against a US aircraft carrier in January with 13 aircraft including eight bombers with nuclear capability. ‘Stop China’ — or, at least, ‘Contain China’ — is now the only US policy on which both Democrats and Republicans are unified in Congress.
While Xi Jinping’s global geopolitical machinations have drawn international press attention, it is sometimes forgotten that China’s primary foreign policy objective remains the reclamation of Taiwan — the only part of the old republic that did not become communist in 1949. Since 1972, an uneasy truce has existed between them, an arrangement of ‘constructive ambiguity’ cleverly formed by Henry Kissinger and Mao. Taiwan would effectively be independent but no one (not even America) would say so. This allowed Richard Nixon to visit China and cemented the famous US-China rapprochement. But such is the emotive importance of Taiwan that in 1978 ‘reunification’ was written into China’s constitution. Even Deng Xiaoping, who in the 1980s cautioned that China should hide its ‘capacities and bide our time’, nevertheless named the ‘return of Taiwan to the motherland’ as a primary political objective. Some 30 years later, China has an even more confident and expansive leader in Xi. Will he continue to wait?
At present China presents two clear lines of policy with regard to Taiwan. One is not to tolerate any attempts to break away from the one-China fudge. (‘We warn those “Taiwan independence” elements — those who play with fire will burn themselves, and Taiwan independence means war,’ said Wu Qian, a Chinese defense ministry spokesman, recently.)
Officially, the Chinese Communist party’s deadline for bringing Taiwan back into the fold is 2049, in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, when Xi wants his ‘great rejuvenation’ to be complete. Since Xi came to power nine years ago, China’s harassment of Taiwan by sea and air has ramped up, with near-daily incursions into its airspace by Chinese aircraft.
Following the subjugation of Hong Kong, Taiwan would have good reason to suspect that China cannot be trusted to stick to a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement. A peaceful reunion – i.e. a ‘soft’ take-over of Taiwan — was always unlikely. Now, it seems impossible; the two countries are not on converging paths. It’s about identity as well as economy. Polls show Taiwanese youth are far less likely than their parents to consider themselves Chinese. If Beijing decides to annex its neighbor, it might consider waiting until 2049, when its economy could be double the size of the United States. But there are many reasons why China could bring forward its takeover of Taiwan by military means.
It emerged recently that the US Navy is short of anti-ship missiles to repel invading forces, with stockpiles of armaments and supplies also deemed inadequate. Some analysts argue that cross-strait deterrence is weaker today than at any point since the Korean War, due to the build-up and modernization of China’s military might compared with America’s relative military and diplomatic neglect of the region.
There’s also the prospect of China launching pre-emptive strikes against US bases. Mock-ups of potential targets have been spied at a Chinese missile test range in the Gobi Desert. Beijing has been rapidly building up its ballistic missile development and deployment. For China, the opportunity to attack Taiwan may come sooner rather than later.
Neither can it be discounted that Xi might like to see unification as his legacy. Commander Philip Davidson, head of the US Navy in the Indo-Pacific, said last week that China could be preparing to invade Taiwan within five years.
In addition, since China has finally accepted that its economic growth is set to slow in line with its rapidly aging population, the CCP may see an urgent need for a source of legitimacy other than rising living standards. As Oxford’s Rana Mitter has argued, China is increasingly looking at its role, real and imagined, in the World War Two to develop a new nationalist narrative. The defense of China, including the recovery of its severed limb, Taiwan, is part of the same narrative.
War over Taiwan, therefore, is a very realistic prospect. And if Britain is set to deploy an expeditionary force — with a Royal Navy aircraft carrier presence in Asia becoming semi-permanent — this carries the extraordinary risk of the UK being embroiled in the next war. The big question is why.
Part of the answer might be that Britain has the kit, so needs to think of a way of using it. The navy has two new aircraft carriers — which some cynics have suggested were built just to employ Scottish ship workers near Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy seat — without the funds to operate them or any obvious strategic use for them. David Cameron tried to cancel one of them but found that Labour had tied the government into employment contracts that would be more expensive to break than continue.
Some might question why, after Britain has snapped into line to support the US, American government officials have let it be known that UK-US trade negotiations are going to be kicked into the long grass. It also has to be asked: what naval assets are going to be left to defend British and European interests against Russia in the Baltic and the Arctic Ocean? It makes sense for America, India and Japan to be engaged in exercises around China’s turf: they are all nations with significant Asian interests. The UK is not.
Does it make sense for much of the Royal Navy — now with just 21 frontline ships — to be stationed halfway around the world? Ever since Boris Johnson came up with the phrase ‘Global Britain’ he has struggled to articulate what it means. But as things stand, it could well mean joining Biden in preparing for war with China over Taiwanese independence. Who knew?