The price of hawkishness

With the UK’s most senior soldier sounding alarm bells about China and cyberwarfare, and the head of M15 charging Beijing with ‘changing the security climate’, Duncan Bartlett wonders what this hawkish position on China will cost Britain in terms of defence and trade

When I attended a recent high-level briefing with Britain’s chief of defence staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, he offered some very useful insights into the threats that Britain faces and its potential responses.

His message can be summed up as follows: it is unlikely that Britain will be drawn into a conventional war – although we need to be prepared for one, given rising geopolitical tensions – but we must be ready to defend the country on other fronts.

The UK is dealing regularly with attacks and ‘challenges’ in non-conventional domains, said Carter, and it is thus vital that Britain’s defence and security is modernised, to create consistency between the army, navy and airforce, and other operations, such as cyber and space.

General Carter gave the example of the Wannacry ransom ware attack, which hit institutions around the world in 2017, including Britain’s National Health Service. The British government has formally asserted that North Korea was behind that attack.

China’s power

But it was another Asian nation on which General Carter focused in some detail during the briefing: China.

China’s new Strategic Support Force is designed to achieve dominance in the space and cyber domains, he said, as it ‘commands satellite information attack and defence forces, electronic assault forces and internet assault forces, campaign information operation forces, which include conventional electronic warfare forces, anti-radiation assault forces and battlefield cyber warfare forces’.

Alongside the sophisticated new weapons of cyber warfare, the general said China has also built the largest maritime surface and subsurface battle force in the world. He said the People’s Liberation Army possesses an armoury of ground launched cruise and ballistic missiles, some of which have ten times the range of conventional weapons.

During the virtual conference, organised by the right-of-centre think tank Policy Exchange, General Carter drew comparisons between democratic and non-democratic regimes, noting that ‘western states draw legitimacy from respect for the conventions, rules and protocols of war. Where we see morals, ethics and values as a centre of gravity, authoritarian rivals see them as an attractive target’.

The People’s Liberation Army possesses an armoury of ground launched cruise and ballistic missile

M15’s forecast

Since that briefing took place, there has been another striking warning about China, this time from M15. The new head of the service, Ken McCallum, said that China is more of a growing long-term challenge to the UK’s security than Russia. He described Moscow as giving ‘bursts of bad weather’, while Beijing is ‘changing the climate’.

China, Mr McCallum claimed, is beginning to engage in an ‘interference in politics’.

Nevertheless, the UK must proceed carefully on China, he urged, due to the economic impact that would ensue from total disengagement. He said Britain needed ‘a broad conversation across government and, crucially, beyond, to reach wise judgments around how the UK interacts with China on both opportunities and risks’.

Since listening to both these presentations, I have been trying to assess if there is full accord between the MoD, M15 and the British government. Are they all of a view that the Asian region presents the biggest threat to the UK? Are they all hawkish vis-à-vis China?

GENERAL ALERT: General Sir Nicholas Carter

Financial matters

One thing to consider is that when a senior soldier meets a politician, the former will almost certainly be thinking about money. Financial matters are also surely at the top of the agenda when the head of the security services joins the conversation.

On that basis, the implicit message from General Carter and Mr McCallum seems to be that the UK government should increase its spending on their departments so that the nation is better equipped to deal with battles in non-conventional areas, such as cyber.

In response to such appeals, I believe we can expect receptive messages from the government. When I tuned into this year’s online Conservative Party conference, several senior ministers talked about the need for increased financial investment in defence and security, with some saying the defence budget should be raised to more than 2.7 percent of overall GDP, despite the recession caused by Covid-19.

And there were other messages from the politicians. One of the key ones was that the UK will continue to be the strongest and most reliable ally of the United States, whatever the outcome of November’s presidential election. Another is that Britain will be a European leader in NATO.

The UK has indicated that it will be ‘a joint burden-sharing and problem-solving country’. Looking at this from a global perspective, ‘burden-sharing’ clearly means paying as much for national defence as the UK’s ally, the United States, demands. The right-wing Conservatives who hold sway over government policy at present believe this is the price that will have to be paid for our small island nation to be locked into a long-term alliance with the world’s military superpower.

Hawkish mood

This is not the view of all the politicians in the opposition parties, of course, but the Conservatives have an 80-seat majority in Parliament following last December’s general election. And if you were to canvass opinion among the opposition Labour Party, or smaller parties such as the SNP and Liberal Democrats, I am sure that you would quickly find many MPs who are hawkish on China and also believe that Britain should place more emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region.

In fact, it has become a more or less universally accepted axiom within the British establishment that what happens in Asia is crucially important for the UK in terms of trade, diplomacy, defence and security. In that spirit, it does indeed make sense to closely link foreign policy with defence and security.

Also due a little more consideration is the economic factor to which Ken McCallum alluded. He made a crucial point when he said we need wise judgments around how Britain interacts with Beijing on that front. The UK is entering a deep and prolonged recession; China, on the other hand, has seen a quick recovery from the initial blow of Covid-19 and its economy grew by nearly five percent in the third quarter of this year.

If Britain wants to have a good business relationship with one of the only countries in the world to be back on a growth trajectory, it will need to consider just how hawkish it is prepared to be on China. This is, of course, not just a dilemma for the government in London. It is the great geopolitical issue worldwide and nowhere more so than in Asia.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs

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