Shades of 1941: A poorly equipped British squadron sails for the South China Sea

WORLD BRITAIN CHINA DEFENCE US POLITICS

PROSPECT (London)

Brexit Britain, the high seas and low farce

Boris Johnson mulls sending a naval squadron to square off against China. A potential act of breathtaking—and dangerous—stupidity

ByAnatol Lieven February 3, 2021

Photo: Neil Watkin / Alamy Stock Photo

The Johnson government’s planned dispatch later this year of an aircraft carrier group to the Indian and Pacific Oceans and—potentially—to confront China in the South China Sea, is a tragicomedy in an almost literal sense. Underneath January’s trumpeting about the achievement of initial operating capability by Britain’s largest ever warship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, were audible whispers that its first deployment would likely take it through the South China Sea.

The tragic aspect is stark. Such a move would simultaneously carry dire implications for British domestic security, the British economy, and Britain’s place in the world. The folly of it could eventually overshadow even Britain’s collaboration in the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

And yet at the same time the potential move has a comic frivolity—it is an almost entirely theatrical exercise, without serious British strategic purpose or rationale. As even a dedicated Atlanticist like Philip Stephens of the Financial Times wrote recently, “Falling further into the arms of Washington does not amount to a post-Brexit foreign policy.”

This dangerous drift is very much of a piece with two already-observable consequences of Brexit. The loss of an anchor in Europe has entangled Britain still further with the strategic goals of the US, without any possibility of influencing or modifying those goals; and the Johnson government’s frantic attempt to show that Brexit has once again made Britain a global power has set off a rather silly and embarrassing tendency to empty geopolitical theatrics. One gushing report in the security trade press describes Britain as moving “out of the shadows and into the limelight as a more active and determined global power.” If the author had said “footlights” instead of “limelight” it would have been closer to the truth.

In the first place, this will not in fact be a British force. Because Britain cannot afford enough planes, half of the Queen Elizabeth’s airpower will be from the US Marine Corps. Because the Royal Navy cannot provide enough escort vessels, most of the squadron’s defensive firepower will come from a US missile destroyer. The title of an article in the US Naval Institute News is entirely frank on the subject: “Royal Navy Intends HMS Queen Elizabeth to be Integrated into US Carrier Operations.” By the same token, this squadron will contribute very little real additional strength to US forces in the region. It will embitter China against Britain and destroy Britain’s potential role as a broker between China and the US, without in any way deterring Beijing from anything it plans to do.

This British squadron is in fact the naval equivalent of the British army’s contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where—despite the courage of British soldiers on the ground—we failed badly and had to be bailed out by the Americans. Embroilment in a naval war with China—of which there is increasing talk in both Washington and Beijing—would be an infinitely more dangerous undertaking. Amidst these clouds of British imperial nostalgia, have we forgotten the last time Britain dispatched capital ships to the South China Sea with inadequate escorts and unclear strategic purpose? Shouldn’t the fact that the Queen Elizabeth’s sister ship is named HMS Prince of Wales make us pause and think a bit? The sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse by the Japanese in the in December 1941, and the subsequent loss of the Battle of the Java Sea, ended—not without honour—the Royal Navy’s history in the Far East. Let the dead rest in peace.

Nor of course is Britain in any sense whatsoever an “Indo-Pacific power.” The US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are because they live there. Even France has Réunion and Tahiti. Britain has nothing to defend. Our last inhabited territory, Diego Garcia, was rented to the Americans for a base in 1968, and its inhabitants deported. Like it or not, strategically speaking Britain is now simply an island off the northwest coast of the European continent.

The deadly serious issue behind British theatrics is America’s moves towards confrontation with China. Now there are good British reasons to push back against certain Chinese policies, to condemn crimes like the persecution of the Uighurs, and to safeguard Britain against aspects of Chinese influence, especially through cyber defences. The approach that is building up in Washington, however, risks repeating some of the worst US mistakes of the Cold War: the demonisation of the enemy (what is happening in Xinjiang is very bad, but it is not “genocide”); the inflation of the adversary’s strength (Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean is in fact minimal); the exaggeration of the adversary’s ambitions (Chinese strategy in the Middle East has to date been notably cautious and hesitant); the framing of every local dispute as part of a global struggle between good and evil; and the adoption of distasteful allies with dangerous agendas of their own.

Most worrying of all is the way in which Britain is being pulled by the US towards a “strategic partnership” with India (in the words of the British government). This is dangerous geopolitics because of India’s territorial dispute with China in the Himalayas. This is an issue with absolutely no clear rights and wrongs, and on which the US has been officially neutral. Now, however, there is a risk that the US will commit itself to support India’s claims (as Biden has just done with regard to Japanese claims in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, on which the US once supported the Chinese legal position). If China is eventually provoked into attacking India, and India loses, then the US will face a choice between remaining aloof and suffering deep humiliation, or going to war with China—with Britain dragged along behind.

For Britain, the biggest threat is however domestic. We are now joining the US in rhetoric about “common democratic values” with India. In fact, Narendra Modi’s government is openly devoted to lightly-veiled authoritarianism, Hindu chauvinism, persecution of Muslims and escalation of the crisis in Kashmir. The difference between Britain and America is that Britain includes a large and growing Pakistani Muslim population, of whom the largest group come from Kashmir. A British alliance with India therefore risks re-igniting domestic terrorism and tearing British society apart.

Britain was a close ally of the US in the Cold War, but still refused to send troops to fight in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war. Today, our most useful contribution to the alliance would be twofold: we can play a key role in safeguarding the security and stability of Europe (especially in the Mediterranean and Balkans), since the US in future will have less and less ability and will to do so; and we can help to keep open lines of communication and co-operation with China. The Soviet adversary eventually collapsed. For obvious economic, demographic and historical reasons, China by contrast is going to be for all foreseeable time a superpower with a central role in the world economy. As Martin Wolf has shrewdly written in the FT, there is no hope of “containing” the People’s Republic as the West did the USSR. Short of nuclear war, nothing that Britain or the US can do will change that. A semi-serious, semi-British naval “strike force” will certainly not do so.

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Anatol Lieven

Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and author of Cli-mate Change and the Nation State (Allen Lane) and America Right and Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (OUP)MORE STORIES BY ANATOL LIEVEN

What Alexei Navalny is and is not

RESPONSIBLE STATECRAFT

RUSSIA

What Putin nemesis Alexei Navalny is, and what he is not

FEBRUARY 2, 2021

Written by
Anatol Lieven

It is very human and natural to admire courage and resolution — these are qualities that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny possesses to a quite remarkable degree. It is also natural to sympathize with suffering — and Navalny has suffered and very nearly died for his beliefs and goals. And of course it is natural to feel disgust with the increasingly criminal behavior of the Putin administration in Russia. 

However, admiration, sympathy and disgust are emotions, not arguments or analysis, and should be employed with great caution in the formulation of state policy.

Recent weeks have seen a tremendous outpouring of American sympathy for Navalny and his movement against the Putin administration. In his confirmation hearings, now-Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pledged Biden administration support for Navalny and called him “a voice for millions and millions of Russians.” Statements by the U.S. embassy in Moscow on the Navalny movement have come very close to calling for the end of the present Russian government. The semi-official American Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is openly and passionately supportive of Navalny’s movement. Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, proposed that Navalny be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Such overt U.S. support is not wise. In the first place, it may actually hurt the cause of progressive reform in Russia. The Russian government, like those of Iran and China, has relentlessly propagated the idea that the opposition is being backed if not bankrolled by Washington in order to weaken their countries; and indeed, Russian liberals have done themselves terrible damage by allowing themselves to be cast as representatives of the West, not of the Russian people. 

The second, very familiar problem is the hypocrisy involved. In the latest volume of President Obama’s memoirs, “A Promised Land,” he describes how Hillary Clinton — who relentlessly presented herself in public as an advocate of spreading democracy — argued that Washington should support Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s brutal 2011 crackdown on Arab Spring opposition protests on the grounds that he was a U.S. ally and his fall would lead to chaos and Islamist revolution. In her early public statements, as well, she warned against hastening Mubarak’s exit.

An even greater problem presents itself when one looks at the actual politics of some of the opposition figures who draw such waves of American and Western enthusiasm. In proposing Navalny for the Nobel Peace Prize, Haas seems to have forgotten the last time the honor was given to an opposition politician. The award to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 was supposed to be for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights… one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.” 

After Suu Kyi joined the government in Myanmar she’s been damned in the West for her failure to prevent or condemn the savage state persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, and most of her human rights awards (though not the Nobel prize itself) have been revoked. What her previous Western admirers are not doing — what they almost never do — is to ask themselves why they so completely misunderstood her before. 

(Just in the last 48 hours, Suu Kyi has been detained in an apparent military takeover of her democratically elected government and Biden is predictably mulling over his options for reviewing sanctions and taking “appropriate action.”)

Like Navalny, Suu Kyi is indeed an exceptionally brave and determined human being and in her way a fine leader; just as Navalny might make a fine Russian president. But she is a Burmese politician, not a Western democratic leader, and in building her up as a liberal heroine, the Western media and activists willfully ignored not just the political realities of Myanmar, but her own Burmese nationalist antecedents.  

There are two factors at work here. The first is a basic human one. Courage, like hard work and self-sacrifice, is a quality that it is humanly impossible not to admire, but the possession of it says absolutely nothing at all about the goals to which they are put. All the leaders of the ghastly totalitarian revolutions of the 20th century were exceptionally brave and determined men.

The second factor relates to some enduring and seemingly incorrigible flaws in most Western reporting and analysis. One of them is the tendency to personalize issues, whereby “Putin” is used as a synonym for the whole Russian state, and “Navalny” is now being presented as a synonym for the entire, enormously disparate Russian opposition. The merest glance at the groups represented at the pro-Navalny demonstrations reveals that together with genuine liberal democrats, there are also numerous Communists and extreme nationalists whose anti-Western positions are much more extreme and reckless than those of Putin himself. As Aleksandr Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre has written

“Saturday’s protests were undeniably anti-regime, anti-elite and anti-corruption but not necessarily liberal, pro-Western and pro-democracy. It’s not surprising that such protests frighten not only the authorities, but also successful members of society: even those who don’t consider themselves supporters of the regime.” 

In their blind demonization of Putin, and consequent sanctification of Navalny, Western commentators seem to be implicitly assuming that should Navalny win power (which he almost certainly will not), Russia’s foreign policy would change radically in a pro-Western direction. This is nonsense. Navalny’s supporters are backing him out of (entirely justified) fury at Russian state corruption, lawlessness, and economic failure, not to change foreign policy. Every independent opinion poll has suggested that Putin’s foreign and security policies have enjoyed overwhelming public support; and above all, there is very little in Navalny’s own record to suggest that he would change them.

As a 2013 essay by Robert Coalson in The Atlantic documented, Navalny supported the Russian war with Georgia in 2008. He has expressed strongly ethno-nationalist attitudes towards the Caucasian minorities in Russia, and previously made opposition to illegal immigration a key part of his platform. In October 2014 he suggested to a reporter that if he became president he would not return Crimea, which was annexed by Russia earlier that year, to Ukraine (though he also said in that same interview that, “It’s not in the interests of Russians to seize neighboring republics, it’s in their interests to fight corruption, alcoholism and so on — to solve internal problems.”

Rather like Donald Trump concerning American interventionism, Navalny has strongly condemned Russian military intervention in the Middle East on the grounds of cost and irrelevance to real Russian interests; but (as with Trump), that does not necessarily say much about what he would actually do if in power. Apart from anything else, Russia, like the U.S., has a foreign and security establishment “Blob” with firmly established and deeply held collective views on Russia’s vital interests.

To recall this is not to condemn Navalny. It is to remind Americans that he is a Russian politician, not an American one; that he will respond to Russian realities, not Washington fantasies; and that in the end, U.S. administrations will have to deal with whatever government is in power in Moscow. Russian governments will defend Russian interests, along lines that are mostly quite predictable if one knows Russian history and culture. The sooner we realize this, and stop setting up plaster saints in the hope that they will perform miracles, the better for U.S. foreign policy overall.

Written by
Anatol Lieven