Back to the future?

Glyn Ford follows the unfolding US/UK conflict with China and examines prospects for a future war

Beijing rightly stands condemned for its massive over-reaction to problems in Xinjiang of Uyghur separatism and associated terrorism. Equally, its reneging on the deal with the UK – that in accordance with the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, Hong Kong’s existing system and way of life would be unchanged for 50 years until 2047 – is shocking and disconcerting. Yet while condemning both, we need to be all too careful of fellow travellers intent on whisking us to war.

After first fawning over China’s President Xi – and even endorsing Uyghur internment – Donald Trump is now, with both eyes on his re-election, initiating a trade war with Beijing. He attempts the military encirclement of China with a new nest of military alliances, and has put an embargo on Chinese trade. Johnson took the shilling and signed up to this new ‘coalition of the willing’. 

He jumped to avoid being pushed – by rebel backbenchers in the China Research Group (CRG) colluding with a Labour front bench mating ethics with expediency. Johnson concluded that, with the US now denying sales of key components to China’s telecom giant Huawei, his decision in January to let the company supply up to 35% of Britain’s 5G network must be reversed at a cost of a cool £7bn. Simultaneously, the armed wing of the CRG floated the UK’s new aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, off to the South China Sea to help enforce America’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ – a foreign policy priority missing from December’s Tory Manifesto.

Here, according to Washington, a new maritime front line is necessary, with Beijing making impossible territorial claims – contrary to the Law of the Sea Convention – to the Parcel and Spratly islands that stretch in a long tongue past Vietnam and the Philippines to Malaysia. True, China did sign the Convention, while the US still hasn’t. In 1945, after the victory over Japan, Washington ordered the return of both sets of islands, occupied by Tokyo during the war, to the Republic of China. It was only with Mao’s victory that the islands’ ownership became problematic. 

Britain is not alone in being sucked into this swamp. Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Australia’s Scott Morrison have recently signed a bilateral military co-operation agreement, while talks are underway with Modi’s India to pull them into the package. After all, China has been provoking clashes in the last months in the Galwan Valley. The first mover is less clear. Back in 1962, the two sides were briefly at war with Beijing blamed. It was only in 1970 that Neville Maxwell (India’s China War), a scholar leaning in the direction of Delhi, concluded that in fact they were responsible.

Meanwhile in South Korea, the Pentagon is threatening ‘your money and your life’, simultaneously demanding Seoul pays cost-plus-50% for the US troops on the peninsula and pushing for the development of a ‘blue water’ navy to join the flotilla helping to ensure a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.

It’s only par for the course to see Donald Trump’s deeply unloved G7 Group busily being re-purposed in Washington, transmuting this intergovernmental economic organisation into a security-driven Democratic 10 (D-10) in opposition to Beijing. Surprise, surprise: Trump unilaterally decided the new members – to join Japan – will be Australia, India and South Korea. One wonders quite why Australia gets the nod. Its population is smaller than Madagascar and right in the centre of the action is Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country and largest Muslim state.

As for trade, the pandemic woke up the UK – and EU – to its criminal over-dependence on China and India for PPE. That was neither the fault of Beijing nor Delhi, but London and Brussels. Diversification of supply and strategic stockpiling makes as much sense now as it did a decade ago, but then Tory austerity was shouting too loud for it to be heard. The idea that Huawei should have a 100% ban on security grounds is frankly laughable. It is certainly not inconceivable that Huawei’s technologies might have backdoors, although despite all their looking no intelligence agency in the US has found one as yet. Yet it was only a decade ago we all discovered that the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Agency, with the help of GCHQ in Cheltenham via their Echelon system, were routinely intercepting the world’s telephone calls and emails. You can’t swing a stick in Cheltenham without hitting a fluent Mandarin speaker! Certainly at EU level you’d want to ban both Huawei and the US competition and rely on indigenous technology. If you’re going to pay over the odds for an inferior product at least make it domestic.

Back in 1940, the US embargoed all oil exports to Japan, ushering Japan’s military planners to Pearl Harbor. The attempt by Washington to interdict Beijing’s high-tech sales around the world, if even partially successful, will have us back to the future with a new over-arching cold war around which proxy wars could kill millions. It’s in the EU’s and UK’s interest to leave well alone. Labour’s front bench should protest, not pander.

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