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  • Mark Mardell

Global Britain : a Pacific Nation ?

Global Britain: a Pacific nation ?


You could argue that there’s little that says “Global Britain” so well as traveling half way round the world chanting “Come on, if you think you’re hard enough!”


The Royal Navy’s latest pride and joy, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, will soon journey twenty thousand miles, straight into the world’s most febrile flash point, the hotly disputed waters of the South China Seas. The Prime Minister declares it "the most ambitious deployment for two decades”. When Gavin Williamson was still the 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' courtesy of the US Navy. The Americans too will supply some of the war planes on its decks– the F-35’s of the Marine Fighter Attack Squad Wake Island Avenger”, which, according to its makers, 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 other flotsam is bobbing about in Brexit’s wake will be unveiled next month when the Government publishes its long awaited, somewhat delayed, foreign policy review “Global Britain”.

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Coined in 1997 as the name of an anti EU pressure group ‘Global Britain’ is a branding exercise which attempts to hogtie imperial nostalgia to a revised, ambitious role for our country with the ropes of a revitalised trans-Atlantic alliance. One hopes there will be some pretty clear-sighted analysis of the world’s greatest problems and Britain’s strengths.

It is bound to be very Boris, a boosterish attempt to dash pessimism about the Western alliance and the UK’s place in the world. Central will be 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 the commitment to fight for the light is undermined 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.


Still, there are plenty of hints in recent speeches. The Prime Minister is to be applauded for using the bully pulpit of the UN 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 global 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 advised 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.


But in Boris’ vision sea power is a vital symbol. It was by deliberate design that, a little over a year ago, the Prime Minister 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.”


His delight at the artistic depiction of all these old nautical implements was intended to herald a return to a traditional role. Having made the Churchillian choice of the open sea over Europe, the Prime Minister contended that the UK would emerge as a plucky defender of free trade in a Trumpian world of tariff wars and Covid closed borders.


More recently the First sea Lord put the case for his senior 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 wider UK pivot to Asia, which also has an eye-catching flag ship. The organisation was once the centre piece of Obama’s own pivot, smashed up by Trump. Our application to join the eleven nation Pacific trade bloc is as weird as Australia’s participation in the Eurovision song contest. We can claim to be an Atlantic nation, a North Sea Nation, heaven forbid, only whisper this, a Cross Channel nation. But the maps show we are roughly seven thousand miles away from being a Pacific nation. It is so bizarre that it is either fiendishly clever, stealing a march on those slow coaches limited by mere geography, or intended as whacking great symbol of … something or other. Of what, is less certain.


Perhaps the post Brexit appeal is of once again linking arms, as Boris Johnson suggests, with those commonwealth nations ‘on whom we deliberately turned our backs in the early 1970s’. Or does it make the point we are not against trading blocs per se ? Or perhaps, its more about keeping our fingers crossed that Biden re joins the group Trump undercut and abandoned ? Probably all of the above, but also a daring, Superman like, attempt to defy gravity.


If so, more analysis is needed. The "gravity model" is the contention that most of a nation’s trade will always be with countries which are physically near by. There is some evidence that Brexiteers may have spotted a growing trend away from this apparent truth – 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 any list of UK’s top trade partners. To put it in a slightly less sneery way, Japan is currently number eleven, sandwiched between our fellow non-EU Europeans Switzerland and Norway.


So, a flag of intent. Critically we would be joining a partnership designed as a riposte to China’s ever growing economic, and political, clout in its own backyard.


The UK’s China strategy has been all over the place, moving from the blind eye of George Osbourne’s trade driven “Golden Era” to the current increased hostility, mirroring a rare bipartisan consensus in Washington.


Where DC leads the HMS Elizabeth must follow. We can only hope this isn’t mindless shadowing but an agreed and well thought approach.


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 the diplomatic atmosphere with the danger of economic consequences. But not to near misses on the high seas.


Enforcing freedom of navigation in the South China Seas, and discouraging aggression against Taiwan, carry grave risks, with the potential to be damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 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 unless one side 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 something worse in the future. But the danger of poking an increasingly assertive and nationalistic China in its tenderest spot, in the year that sees the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party, is obvious.


It would be good to know how Biden’s White House views the erudite, intriguing and ultimately pretty hawkish ‘The longer telegram’ published by the Atlantic Council written by an anonymous senior former official. It sets out a far-ranging China strategy, which boils down to confronting President Xi rather than CCP rule. All important is whether Pentagon planners are heeding its mildly stated but truly alarming observation that “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.”


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”.


It may well be correct that that the USA could win a war with China now – but may not be able to in the future. 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 within spitting distance of exploring the options.


It all seems a long way removed from Brexit, but it is not. 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 like Virginia were something of a consolation prize for the previous centuries’ steady loss of continental real estate, although disengagement from Europe was never an option. It still isn’t.


The new strategy mustn’t duck this central conundrum, if Global Britain is to be more than gung-ho piffle. It can be argued the Commonwealth, the USA, the Pacific region are all a vital part of what you might call the Global West. 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, rejected and insulted has to be a core part of it.


And we all know Boris’ problem is that he is a master of the colourful image and striking headline, but useless at carrying through, clueless at strategy once the campaign is won.


‘Future nostalgia’ is a great album but would be less impressive 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 impress as superman, let alone a superpower re born.




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