Friday, July 12, 2024
 
 

A dash of UK Hubris: Containing China

Members of the Royal Navy during an inspection in front of Buckingham Palace.

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Hubris is a fickle emotion. Too much of it can be deadly, while too little of it can be crushing. A country with a long tradition of hubris on the international stage is the UK. From their conquest of North America to Asia, British foreign policy is well acclimatized to both the risks and rewards that come with global ambition. For anyone who has read the UK Integrated Review, the hubris oozing from its pages are hard to overlook. 

With “Global Britain” back in action and reoriented towards Asia to contain the pacing threat of China, Downing Street would do well to manage expectations when juxtaposed against such a formidable rival. History is littered with nations that failed in their quest for increased international relevancy due to overextension or mission creep.  Consequently, as Britain embarks on another chapter of its storied statecraft, applying the right strategy and assets to meet its objectives in Asia has never been more critical for itself and the global community.

As a point of reference, the designs of the UK Integrated Review are noble in nature where the UK should be commended for taking such a clear-eyed approach to China.  Not everyone possesses the appetite to take on China, where many would bristle at the thought of receiving Xi Jinping’s vitriol or loss of investment. Consequently, attempting to diminish China’s uninhibited action in the region and check their ambitions is a worthwhile policy objective given the litany of transgressions they are responsible for.

From the construction of a second nuclear silo in Hami to the hoarding of anti-satellite weapons as well as the relentless military intimidation of Taiwan, Australia and others, China has acted with impunity for too long. The recent testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, portrayed as a spacecraft by government authorities, is a frightening reminder of its rapidly developing capabilities and potential willingness to introduce these weapons to a theatre setting.

Outside of their immediate neighborhood, their proliferation of debt traps in the developing world and their trojan horse-like application of Huawei on 5G networks is further proof of their miscreant intentions. Despite the seduction of partnering with Beijing, the UK recognized the compromising position that comes with working China and made a bold statement by banning Huawei from its 5G rollout in November 2020. This pushback theme has extended to the military domain where the British government’s approval for the largest rise in its defence budget, $21.9 billion over a four-year period, since the Cold War is a welcome announcement that will help it develop the necessary capabilities to match policy.  

Just like its past engagements with a superpower, the UK is not looking to take China head-on. Its expanded assignment of military assets to the region will be part of a larger containment strategy that will allow it to make maximum impact. Spearheaded by the United States, a community of like-minded nations are coalescing around checking China where diplomatic efforts to build a groundswell of support and commitment to this theme is as important as the military efforts. The recent AUKUS pact was a major coup against China, confirming their collective seriousness in tackling the military threat it poses. The Chinese containment strategy, and Britain’s role within it, will further profit under the QUAD umbrella which will provide London with the leading strategic platform to consult allied capitals on China. 

To compliment the QUAD, the UK Integrated review has also pledged to increase contributions to the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) as well as pursue closer defence cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. All of these alliances and partnerships will be key for London as they buy time to both scale up military staffing in key countries and ramp up defence capabilities. 

At the moment the sum total of British military hardware does not match its regional objectives, where a fully ready British presence and strong “China-facing capabilities” won’t arrive until sometime in 2040.  Despite the delay, the resources currently at their disposal still hold great utility in the short and medium-term. 

The UK will use its current Carrier Strike Group deployment in 2021 and beyond to boost its regional engagement and lay down a marker to China that its presence in the region is permanent. The sights of UK naval assets on longer and more regular deployments in the region will only grow as the UK stations two patrol vessels in the Indo-Pacific region and modernizes existing facilities to check China’s naval expansion. This feature will also positively feed into America’s strategy of distribution maritime forces in the Pacific that will contribute to more equal burden-sharing.

Down the road, upgrades on the current class of destroyers and frigates will significantly enhance Britain’s capability and capacity to take on more responsibility. The eventual delivery of the next generation subsea systems, in the 2040s, to replace the current fleet of Astute-class submarines will be transformational for Britain’s ability to project power vis-à-vis China or other rivals. 

To be clear, pursuing this ambitious strategy doesn’t come without the risk of blowback. London and its allies should expect an assortment of retaliatory action from China in both the military and economic domains. Thankfully the Cold War has taught the UK how to both withstand pressure and act with swagger to compete in the global arena of titans.

As Britain gradually rediscovers its global muscle memory, it should look to apply its China containment strategy gradually and impose its advantages selectively. Protecting vital national interests and instigating a superpower will not be business as usual. With a dash of hubris and good fortune “Global Britain” can do its part for itself and the world.

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