A restless, ambitious China needs careful handling

Jenny He

Visible military presence in China is not unusual; but in my experience it has been limited to fairly disorganised lines of privates carrying milking stools from one end of the street to the other for some sort of daily briefing.  Nanjing has been awash with soldiers these past two weeks, however, as college and university students embark on a pre-term course of military training akin to national service. All day long the choruses of nationalist lyrics can be heard; an easy method of advertising the same values to the wider community, who also received a barrage of recruitment text messages before the summer. 

But this instilling of patriotism is at odds with the mentality of the current government. Many young people in China perceive the contemporary Party to be weak compared to the ideal established by Chairman Mao.  The posturing and threats against Japan and the Philippines in reaction to territorial disputes in the South China Sea are seen by many as not going far enough. “I would like action to secure Chinese territories such as the fishing island”, says university student Michael, who like many of his age group would also be in favour of expanding the military to protect these interests. 

The government make threatening statements – most recently against perceived British interference in Hong Kong where the UK intelligence agencies are accused of widening infiltration and strengthening surveillance since it became a special autonomous region in 1997 –  but young people see the outcome as mute: “I don’t think Chinese military is as strong as the US”. The actual ability to mobilise against opponents, who would quickly find strong allies, makes military action more of a wish than a policy. The friendship between the USA and Japan is seen as unfair to China and a barrier to dealing with the territorial disputes. This is reflected in British policy also. William Hague’s visits to Asia in 2010 featured discussions on regional security in Japan, whilst China was the scene for discussions on business, climate change, and cultural exchanges. The same year did, however, see a meeting of senior military officials in Beijing.

Public desire for China’s involvement in international campaigns is mixed. The USA is often described by young people as ‘wanting to be the world policeman’ with France currently branded as ‘[Obama’s] small dog’ for supporting the campaign in Syria. Many people, infact, are unaware of the large numbers of Chinese engaged in UN missions and continue to see their country as isolated from a very foreign community.  Meanwhile others see it as a welcome and inevitable progression for China to become the new world policeman.

The FCO website lists four military areas in which the British and Chinese governments are cooperating. The first is to ‘counter the proliferation of conventional and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons’ in which China’s influence in North Korea has been useful. The second ‘is to reduce regional tensions by working for openness and understanding across borders’ – that fishing island is a diplomatic minefield. Thirdly ‘contribute to conflict prevention and supporting conflict resolution in fragile states’ which China has upheld by committing 21,000 people to 30 UN peacekeeping operations – the figures stated by Cai Yong, Chinese Defence Attache, as evidence of China’s efforts to maintain “world peace”. The fourth mission statement is to ‘deal with non-traditional security issues such as cyber crime, international terrorism, disaster relief, water and food security, and resource scarcity’ where it becomes difficult to assess the impact of the current cooperation. 

The main problem of forging closer links with China is that we don’t want to be too closely associated with a government known for human rights abuses and rife corruption. Although China is an economic powerhouse vast swathes of the country remain undeveloped and inhabited by peasant farmers; the border regions are hazardous; and cultural norms can be very different to what we consider ‘civilised’. We’re more comfortable in a relationship with a culturally similar state where we can trade off any dodgy practices with more common ground.

Premier Li called for closer ties between the UK and China on international and regional affairs at the Davos economic forum last week in Dalian. His statement that it is “in both countries’ interests to deepen bilateral cooperation and to strengthen communication and coordination on international affairs” is a positive sign for the UK after David Cameron’s ill-advised May meeting with the Dalai Lama provoked outrage in China and resulted in Cameron being banned from future visits to Beijing.

Increasing numbers of Chinese nationals go overseas to work and study (many in Britain whilst their European counterparts are living the expat lifestyle all over China), Chinese investors are buying foreign homes (including prime London real estate), and Chinese companies are expanding all over the world (China’s largest company, Sinopec, has offices in Paris).  China needs to protect all these newfound interests, whilst the UK needs to maintain a good working relationship with a government to whom we are already bound.

Britain ‘pivots’ to Asia on a Japanese-made hinge


Louis Reynolds

At first glance the twin trade and cooperation agreements signed by William Hague and His Excellency Keiichi Hayashi in London last week were a positive yet unremarkable contribution to the Coalition’s ambitions regarding the expansion of Britain’s international trade relations and the promotion of Britain’s defence industry. In actual fact, the new pact represents a broader fulfilment of the Government’s strategic vision.

The basic substance of these agreements in itself, while ground-breaking, is rather reserved. The UK-Japan Defence Equipment Coordination Framework will facilitate joint research projects within the defence industry, while the Information Security Agreement outlines the rules regarding the sharing of classified information necessitated by the cooperation effort. Initial collaboration efforts will centre on chemical, biological and radiological protective equipment, with engagement expanding to anti-air defences and similar projects at a later date.  

While this Anglo-Japanese agreement is important in simple economic terms, in the manner of previous large-scale Coalition trade agreements such as those arranged with China, or India, it crucially also has specific value in and of itself. The collaborative potential for two nations with such exceptional high-tech industrial bases and pioneering technological expertise is extensive, and the pact has the added attraction of relative exclusivity; the United Kingdom is now Japan’s only defence research and development partner with the exception of the United States.

Furthermore, the agreements fulfil a significant part of Hague’s vision, as set out in his July 2010 speech Britain’s Prosperity in a Networked World,of an increased focus on new, tailored partnerships with a broader range of global powers. This is in turn part of the Coalition’s divergence from Britain’s previous (perhaps antiquated) foreign policy set around traditional alliances. Cameron and Hague are seeking to establish Britain as an innovative power capable of diplomatic flexibility in a multi-polar world.

Considered in the context of the UK’s recent activities in the Far East - her opposition to the removal of the EU arms embargo on China, Cameron’s tour of other Asian states, her expressed desire to see an augmentation of the military capabilities of China’s neighbours and finally the ‘Vietnam-UK Plan of Action - it would require little imagination to view these latest agreements with Japan as part of a broad attempt to increase Britain’s profile as a power-player in Asia.

Yet while these agreements are indicative of important cultural shifts in British foreign policy – shifts away from traditional alliances, away from Imperial baggage and away from a Eurocentric understanding of foreign policy – it is important to maintain perspective. Britain is not in a position to directly influence trends and events in Asia. Reduced military power, economic ailments and the continued decline of comparative European power in general limits Britain’s capability to act independently in such a critical region so far from home, in terms of hard or soft power. Yet Britain has unique strengths and capabilities and remains a powerful international actor as well as a highly desirable ally. For Britain to make best use of the opportunities of Asia in the twenty-first century, it is necessary that she applies her distinctive skills within the context of cooperation with other powers.

Earlier this year I attended the last foreign speech given by Leon Panetta, then United States Secretary of Defence. The address largely focused on the necessity of an American ‘pivot towards Asia’, and framed the European Union as a potential senior partner in such a strategy. Panetta’s argument was greeted with a degree of scepticism – the EU and foreign policy can occasionally seem to be incompatible concepts – but his logic seems clearer today than it did in January. The lack of reference to the United Kingdom as an independent power was prominent in Panetta’s speech, as was the firm focus on Britain’s role within the EU - perhaps more a reflection of changes in the international order than any significant British decline. This Government seems to understand the new reality too; Hague mentioned the European Union twelve times in his Britain in Asia speech last week.

These latest Anglo-Japanese agreements therefore represent much more than an innovative response to economic concerns, though Britain’s economic motivations are prominent in her foreign policy. For the United Kingdom they represent a positive reaction to broader shifts in international political dynamics. For the Coalition these developments demonstrate a positive and proactive attitude to changes which Britain must embrace, and which, if handled correctly, could stand to make Britain stronger.

Follow Louis on Twitter.

A chance underwater encounter in New Caledonia

Nik Darlington 11.50am

We hovered in clear blue mid-water, soaring over a pristine piste of snow-white sand. Twenty metres to the shimmering sun on the surface, another five to the seabed below.

Out of the deeper-blue distance, I spotted shards of silver and grey. Then another. Those shards became shapes; the shapes became a grey-blue shadow.

Yannick and I locked eyes, nodded and returned our sights to the enlarging shadow. Rapt. In this silent world, a look conveys more than words.

The shadow took form. A sleek six feet, maybe slightly more. The distance shortened, but slowly, as is its want, until a natural cordon ten metres in diameter was formed.

Yannick and I assumed the safest, recommended stance: back-to-back, never take your eyes off its circling form. Precautionary, of course, but truly indeed just to maintain a good look of it. Such economy of movement. So at home.

Unlike Yannick and I, thrill-seeking spectators in an alien environment. Though this is voyeurism with risks. Its graceful orbit became tighter, to the point of its being suffocating. At moments like this one appreciates the non-contradiction of claustrophobia in open water.

Admiration quickly became apprehension. No more than five metres separated us. Little more than two times it.

Then it stopped. Time stood still. Noiselessness interrupted by a noise so inimitable, yet unforgettable. Like a vehicle exhaust backfiring, or the expert crack of a whip.

By the time I had realised it was heading towards us, the sleek form had become a shadow once more. Then shards of silver and grey. Then nothing. All that remained was the shudder of displaced water against my stiffened body. Hairs don’t often stand on end under water.

Yannick and I locked eyes, and smiled.

Yesterday in Bangkok, the oceanic white tip shark was given unprecedented protection by CITES. Its numbers are in dramatic decline as a result of barbaric fishing practices (its prominent dorsal fin is a prized ingredient for Oriental pottage and eccentric medicines).

Opposition from China and Japan has long prevented its accession to a list of protected species but now, alongside three types of hammerheads and the porbeagle, the vulnerable oceanic white tip has been given a stay of execution.

Sharks are too often misunderstood, mistreated and maligned in fiction and film. As our understanding of sharks has increased, however, nations around the world have come to realise their immense worth and intrinsic beauty. Apparently the sea change has been arrived at in part by South American countries comprehending the vast tourism dollars that come with healthy shark stocks.

In coming into direct contact with sharks big and small over the years, I have certainly come to know fear and delight in equal measure. Fear is a good thing - it engenders respect. And is the truest basis for the sublime. There aren’t many good news stories where sharks are concerned. This is one.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Iraq was a failure of the neo-conservative world view

Aaron Ellis 9.17am

Iraq is the centre of the world and crucial to the United States’ wider foreign policy. President Obama is a failure and President Bush is as wise and as farsighted a statesman as General Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan.

This is the context in which we must understand the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, says Tim Montgomerie.

Last week, Mr Montgomerie attacked President Obama’s withdrawal from the country. He contrasts it with President Bush’s decision in 2007 to ‘surge’ American troops in order to regain momentum against the insurgency. Typically, Mr Montgomerie presents the reader with black-or-white choices: Bush is good, Obama is bad; and if you support the withdrawal, you “hate freedom”.

Neo-conservatives possess a dated worldview – and it shows. They are stuck in the early 2000s and the language of the War on Terror. They show no appreciation of grand strategy in his article or the coming of the ‘Pacific Century’. This is in stark contrast to President Obama, which is why Iraq should be added to the list of foreign policy failures by neo-conservatives and not the President’s.

The two decisions of Presidents Bush and Obama that we should contrast are the former’s decision to invade Iraq and the latter’s announcement last month of a new American military base in Australia.

For no good reason at all, President Bush burdened the United States with a disastrous war in a country of only marginal importance; he handed “a massive gift” to Tehran as a result, and distracted Washington from a real challenge to its power: China.

With his own announcement, however, President Obama sent a signal to Beijing that the U.S. was no longer distracted. The new base, the President said, was “a deliberate and strategic decision – as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping the region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends.”

The great scholar Walter Russell Mead has described President Obama’s announcement, and other diplomatic coups the U.S. achieved in Asia last month, as the “coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.”

If we understand the Iraq withdrawal in this context then it is obvious which of the two presidents can claim to be a wise and farsighted statesman. “Regardless of whether the twenty-first century will be another ‘American century’, it is certain that it will be an Asian and Pacific century”, Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, has written. “It is both natural and sensible that the US be central to whatever evolves from that fact.”

This undermines many of the neo-conservatives’ other beliefs. Tim Montgomerie is disappointed that the U.S. will not have a “foothold” in Iraq but he does not explain why such a foothold is important to the U.S. He has tweeted praise for a Mitt Romney line about whether a government scheme is so crucial that it is worth borrowing money from China to pay for it, but he hasn’t yet answered whether the same test can be applied to Iraq.

The fact that the interests of the United States are in Asia-Pacific also undermines the examples of post-war Germany and Japan as templates for American policy vis-à-vis Iraq. Those two countries mattered to U.S. security after 1945, justifying the time and money spent on developing them. You cannot make the same argument with regard to Iraq.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis