Just a few years after David Cameron and George Osborne proclaimed a “golden age” of British-Chinese relations, Britain has placed itself in the front ranks of a new “cold war” against China.

Andrew Murray

Confrontation with China is now the governing principle of US foreign policy.  And as so often, where Washington leads, London tamely follows.

After several more-or-less failed interventions in the larger Middle East – most spectacularly in Afghanistan – the western powers have prioritised obstructing China’s rise as their main foreign policy concern.  The underlying motivation is to maintain the global hegemony of the USA and the privileged position of its main imperial allies, including Britain.

For the Johnson government this is what “global Britain” is all about – playing a leading role in supporting the ambitions of the USA, whether it be under Trump or Biden (and this is one matter on which bipartisanship is still strong in Washington).  Other alliances are subordinated to this imperative, and may even be sacrificed to it.

These trends have found expression in the new AUKUS nuclear pact, signed with the USA and Australia.  It aims to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines better able to confront China over longer distances at sea.

This followed the noisily-advertised dispatch of Britain’s new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, to the Far East, accompanied by a mixed escort of US and British warships – a pointless and provocative excursion into a part of the world where Britain has no legitimate security interests.

Just a few years after David Cameron and George Osborne proclaimed a “golden age” of British-Chinese relations, Britain has placed itself in the front ranks of a new “cold war” against China.

The AUKUS pact represents a significant escalation of the arms race in itself.  Australia has never been equipped with nuclear-powered submarines before, nor felt the need to be.  Its own relations with China have been deteriorating over the last two years and, more importantly, its own conservative government is anxious to align with the USA.

In the process, the French government was rudely elbowed out of the way – their own contract to supply Australia with regular submarines was scrapped with just a few hours’ notice.  This was a notable snub to a country which regards itself as a Pacific power and had invested heavily in relations with Australia.

The alacrity with which Britain joined in the pact and its indifference to the offence caused to France is a further indication of British foreign policy’s orientation away from Europe (except when NATO is involved, as over Ukraine) and towards a “global” alignment with the USA.

It reflects a desire to be seen as a global player, at Washington’s right hand.  The same logic dictated its return to an “east of Suez” role a decade ago, with the opening of a permanent naval base in authoritarian Bahrain.

The AUKUS project is, however, in an escapade in the service of a doomed enterprise.  It is the latest attempt of Washington to create a firm basis for its continued hegemony, in this case in the Pacific region in the face of an apparently ever-strengthening China.

It immediate impact is muted by the fact that the submarines, which Britain is to help manufacture, will not come into service for nearly twenty years. The larger problem is that no juggling with military hardware, nor of diplomatic alliances (AUKUS intersects with the construction of a ‘quad’ in the region, uniting the US with India, Japan and Australia again in confrontation with China), can disguise the erosion of the unipolar moment of unchallengeable US power.

The rise of China as an economic and military power is a fact, as is the decline of US power, the wreckage of its economic model in the 2008 bankers’ crash and its worsening internal divisions, tending towards political paralysis.

It is true that the US remains the pre-eminent military hyper-power. But the limitations of that have been exposed in Afghanistan and Iraq this century.  Today, it faces challenges in three theatres – China/Far East; Iran and Russia/Ukraine.  This will surely strength its capacities beyond what can be borne.

The unipolar moment is over. Much of the world looks to China for economic assistance and investment. The US model is seen as tarnished and compromised.  No nuclear submarines are going to alter that.

However, AUKUS is a danger. It fits into a pattern of anti-China provocations that could lead to war. The most likely flashpoint is around Taiwan, a breakaway province from China that is persistently flirting with declaring independence.  The US has indicated it might support Taiwan in any conflict, which China regards as its own internal affair.

The new pact locks Britain into the alliances which might get drawn into such a conflict.  That is why the anti-war movement has to prioritise campaigning against AUKUS, explaining its aggressive essence to the public.

It is notable that the Starmer leadership of Labour was unable to stop the 2021 party conference voting by a very comfortable margin to condemn the pact.  That should be built on as part of the broader campaign to avert British participation in the new cold war against China – something best done, in my view, not by defending every act done by the Chinese government but by explaining to the British people the many ways in which their own situation would be worsened by such a policy (in the economy, education, culture, community cohesion etc).

Still more broadly, the critical issue remains the disengagement of British policy from the demands of Washington, decoupling from a declining and decaying power which has already embroiled the country in far too many wars over the last generation, and instead by opting for a foreign policy based on the peaceful resolution of disputes and the addressing of the real problems besetting humanity from climate change to poverty to pandemics.

Source: Labour Outlook

17 Dec 2021 by Andrew Murray

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