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Britain’s Aircraft Carrier Cruise

Sep 07, 2021
  • Su Jingxiang

    Fellow, China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations

In line with an agenda set by the United States and NATO in early May, warships from Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and some other countries entered the South China Sea in August to join the navies of the Quad — the U.S., Japan, Australia and India — for joint military exercises. The main purpose was to show off the military presence of Western powers in the Pacific region and induce more countries, especially those in East, South and Southeast Asia, to join the U.S.-led anti-China coalition.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, NATO has become a pure instrument of military aggression for the U.S. But in past decades, they only attacked countries incapable of defending themselves, such as Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen. When military powers such as China and Russia were targeted, the U.S. and its allies would conduct various military exercises that were often politically motivated and provocative.

That was probably why France, Germany and the Netherlands sent only one or two warships each, symbolically maintaining their say to a certain extent. Britain, by contrast, dispatched an aircraft carrier fleet, which both highlighted its special relationship with the U.S. and revealed some deeper strategic intent.

The U.S. has identified China and Russia as its top strategic rivals for the coming decades, which means potentially drastic increases in military and economic costs for it to maintain its hegemonic status globally.

The world today is undergoing a profound technological revolution. It is expected that within a few years, a new generation of technologies will have a decisive effect on economic and military advantages. Artificial intelligence, network technology, 5G wireless broadband and smart hypersonic weapons will become tools to easily disrupt a strategic rival’s networks, communications, power supplies, financial systems and critical production.

The U.S. sees a need to devote more strategic resources to containing China and Russia and has to give up some targets of relatively lower strategic interest, which was one important factor behind its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

This containment strategy is a costly game with no end. The U.S. does not have a clear advantage in many key technologies or emerging industries. It needs to make massive investments in technology, as its economy faces a deep crisis. For these reasons, the U.S. does not have the upper hand, at least for some time to come.

The boundaries and prospects of its strategic games with China and Russia are obscure, so it is difficult to make any judgment about results. Probably the parties will be interlocked and intertwined. The U.S. knows this and so does the UK. Hence, neither will underestimate the value of the Chinese market, nor will they forget that they need the Chinese economy.

The global political and security situation is increasingly complex and challenging. Sustaining economic growth is more difficult and important than ever for all countries around the world. Only sustained and stable economic growth will allow large-scale investment in the high-tech sector, as well as participation in international competition and generation of new military and economic strengths. Without a sufficiently large economy and adequate growth, it will not be possible for any country to compete in emerging domains.

For this reason, like France and Germany, Britain has tried to avoid damaging its economic relationship with China. It claims it does not see China as an enemy. The UK is different from its European peers in that it has gone one step further with its determination to join the Asia-Pacific economic circle to boost its economic growth in the future: It formally applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.

A policy paper — “UK Approach to Joining the CPTPP Trade Agreement” — which was released in June last year, proposed to join. The objectives are threefold:

First is to ensure increased trade and investment opportunities to support an industrial revival. Second is to help diversify foreign trade links and supply chains, thus improving economic security at a time of heightened uncertainty and chaos in the world. Third is to help secure Britain’s future position in the world and promote its long-term interests as a global hub of international businesses and investment.

Britain completed Brexit negotiations at the end of 2020, reasserting its own national ownership. It is also in a fair position to apply for CPTPP membership. The agreement is currently only in force in seven member countries. Britain has already concluded trade agreements with Mexico, Japan and Vietnam, and the remaining four CPTPP members — Singapore, New Zealand, Canada and Australia — are all Commonwealth countries with close political and economic ties with the UK.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations, in which China took part, were concluded at the end of last year. The RCEP now provides a new institutional framework for trade in the Asia-Pacific region. The partnership brings together 15 countries in the region, including China, the Republic of Korea and ASEAN countries, which represent about one-third of the world’s population and GDP. It is the world’s largest trade agreement.

Since Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam are RCEP and CPTPP members, Britain’s accession to the CPTPP will indirectly provide British companies with new channels to the Chinese market. This will represent a new competitive advantage over EU companies and is therefore more important than ever to Britain’s political and economic interests.

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