While the West’s powers fight amongst themselves, China is rubbing her hands
Three months on from the G7, Western unity has taken two sucker punches - withdrawal from Afghanistan and the formation of Aukus - which have left the honeyed words of Carbis Bay looking empty, and given China no end of pleasure.
Just as in the 1930s when the democracies turned a blind eye to Germany’s menace, the West is currently in denial over China’s advancing authoritarian might.
History repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce, and we must accept our world is a little more dangerous, the West is a little less united, and the challenges we face are ever more complex. So it beggars belief why leaders seem to be naïvely ignoring what a dangerous state of flux the world is in.
Anyone remember the great “America is Back” reset at the G7 summit in Cornwall? Global leaders displayed genuine optimism in re-invigorating a sense of Western resolve to speak with one voice in tackling an accumulating number of complex and diverse challenges.
Three months later, Western unity has taken two sucker punches which have left the honeyed words of Carbis Bay looking empty, and given China no end of pleasure.
The threat governments dare not mention is a China which militarises the South China Sea and threatens Taiwan
America’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from Afghanistan damaged its reputation as a reliable force for good, and diminished the West’s ability to shape the World and defend hard-fought international standards and values. The upshot is that Nato is humiliated – seemingly unable to act without America’s lead.
Second, the fresh diplomatic fallout caused by the formation of Aukus, a new Indo-Pacific alliance, compounds matters. It may well be that Australia salivated at state-of-the-art nuclear submarines – stealthier than the £48bn diesel-electric French subs already stalled by delays. But it’s not the loss of a major contract that riles France (and by extension Germany) but the clunky manner with which this was handled. Why not include France in this geo-strategic partnership? We would have had an enthusiastic participant. Instead we have a bitter enemy.
The threat governments dare not mention is a China which militarises the South China Sea and threatens Taiwan. America will be pleased to lure two close allies into the front line to defend Taiwan if attacked, and the Pacific seaways if blocked. We should be clear, though, that, for Britain, this suggests more than just a tilt to east of Suez operations as predicted by our Integrated Review, but active engagement with implications for an already over-stretched Royal Navy.
Appeasement and diplomatic vandalism never prosper. Whilst a new localised maritime alliance should be welcomed, the West should have done two things to contain China’s aggressive behaviour.
A greater application of international statecraft could have resulted in the formation of a larger coalition, helped repair the post-Afghanistan fallout and even addressed the disjoint between Nato and EU security objectives. Step forward the Quad, an already existing powerful alliance including the US, Japan, India and Australia. Inviting France and the UK to join would have limited Aukus to a simple procurement programme and bolstered the alliance that could offer genuine clout in the region.
And integrating Western defence systems could have been an opportunity for America to help resolve the post-Brexit division that continues to diminish collective European security co-operation. For example, idiocies like excluding the UK from the EU’s Galileo GPS programme and Britain and France developing competing next-generation fighter jets.
This brings us back to China and denial. We will not alter Beijing’s behaviour by tactical military means alone. We require an agreed long-term objective, a comprehensive global trade and security strategy that firstly welcomes China’s participation – subject to recognised international standards – and robustly stands up to China if these standards are breached.
The West must urgently re-group. There is a serious role for Britain to play to make this happen. Our hard and soft power credentials remain strong. But we must reinvigorate our appetite to lead and advance our foreign policy machinery if we are to make this happen.
Otherwise, as Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
Tobias Ellwood is the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East and chair of the Defence Committee.
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