Still looking for a role
By Michael Gregson
Half a century has passed since it was first stated that Britain had lost an empire and not found a role. Those words of American statesman Dean Acheson ring more true than ever today as Boris Johnson attempts to rebrand his struggling country as ‘Global Britain’.
Acheson was spot on in 1962 when he said Britain’s role as an independent Power was “about played out”. Nearly 50 years later, Britain is more alone than ever, having turned its back on the European Union, the most successful trading bloc in history. The frictionless movement of goods and people to and from 27 countries has become snarled in bureaucratic red tape – with even lorry drivers banned from taking their sandwiches across the Channel.
COVID-19 is running rampant throughout the UK. Temporary morgues have had to be set up in some areas after local hospital mortuaries ran out of space as Britain reported record levels of deaths and new infections in the last few weeks. The weary population is struggling with ever more confusing restrictions as the Prime Minister himself was caught flouting the spirit of the law by travelling across London to exercise locally.
Perhaps in attempt to distract people from the worsening news at home,‘Global Britain’ has now set its sights on China. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, has condemned the treatment of China’s Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and UK guidance has been strengthened in an effort to make sure nothing made by forced labour in China ends up in Britain.
Some argued that ‘Global Britain’ would have to subordinate everything in its foreign policy to economics and the need for trade deals. Instead, last summer there was an about-turn over the plans to have Huawei play a key role in the UK’s 5G network. All this is designed to send a message to the incoming administration in Washington: the UK will put principles before profit even at the expense of the inevitable economic retaliation from Beijing.
Already Chinese imports from the UK have dropped 17 per cent year-on-year. The so-called “golden era” between China and UK has ground to a halt. Citing the catch-all guise of national security, London has followed the US Government by discriminating against China.
With a trade war brewing with China, Britain has now set itself on a maritime collision course with Beijing. Touting itself as “a global power with truly global interest”, the UK has announced the successful initial test of the newly-launched aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, its largest warship on record.
Having achieved initial operational capacity, the UK’s flagship Carrier Strike Group — centred on the 65,000-tonne carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth with state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighter jets, helicopters, submarines, frigates and destroyers – can now be deployed within just five days of initial notice for any global contingency.
Regional media reports suggest that Asia’s contested waters, including the South China Sea, will be its first major area of deployment in the coming months.
At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the country’s armed forces to maintain “full-time combat readiness” and “act at any second” in response to external threats amid Western powers’ “flexing muscles.”In comments to the People’s Liberation Army, Xi highlighted real and emerging “frontline military struggles” which stand at the heart of China’s national security strategy in the 21st century.
The British armada is expected to pass through contested waters, including the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits on its way to joint naval drills with the US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces in the East China Sea by the end of the year.
Britain, along with other major European powers, claims their naval presence in Asia is crucial to maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters.
China has accused Britain of undue interference and inflaming regional tensions. In his monthly press briefing, China’s Defence Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei reiterated, “China believes that 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,” he added.
So perhaps Britain has found a new role after all – as Chinaantagonist. But this attempt to win influence in Washington could easily backfire, leaving Britain more battered and bruised than ever.