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The UK sends HMS Queen Elizabeth to confront China

May 11, 2021, 3:55 p.m.

For more than 800 years, English naval ships have set sail from Portsmouth for the world's oceans. Last week, the Royal Navy opened a new era with the departure of a new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, for the start of a seven-month mission that will take them to the Indo-Pacific with a strike group. There, the Royal Navy Task Force will take part in operations aimed at ensuring freedom of navigation and the open seas. The reason? "We see China as a challenge and a competitor," said the UK's first sea lord, Adm. Tony Radakin, on a visit to his US counterpart, Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations.

Some may wonder why the British are sticking their toes in the turbulent waters of distant Asia – why London is suddenly so determined to maintain a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and adopt the slogan of the Trump and Biden administrations alike. Or, even more tellingly, why so many nations outside the UK are expressing their criticism of Beijing more and more clearly.

The threatening Chinese-U.S. Confrontation – and particularly America's supposedly more aggressive stance – is often cited as the main threat to global peace. The danger is believed to be the result of former US President Donald Trump's attempts to overthrow four decades of more cooperative US policy towards China. Trump's moves, including introducing tariffs, banning tech companies, challenging Beijing's campaigns of influence, expanding naval operations in the South China Sea, and deepening ties with Taiwan, all sparked warnings that Washington is making China the enemy and the two nations closer would bring to the conflict. For example, an open letter to then President Trump, signed by more than 100 American academics and former diplomats and military personnel, expressed the belief that "many US actions contribute directly to the downward spiral in relations."

The fact that the Biden administration not only continued, but in some ways intensified Trump's policies has contributed to concerns that the US foreign policy elite are now irrevocably committed to a confrontational stance towards China. Michael Klare of the nation's Foreign Minister Antony Blinken criticized the Chinese for insulting the Chinese at his meeting in Anchorage with his Chinese counterparts, and stated that the US Navy's freedom of navigation in the South China Sea despite the rejection of The Hague in 2016 "Provocative maneuvers" are Beijing's claims in these waters.

If it were really the case that America alone was responsible for the tensions between the US and China, one might expect other countries to distance themselves from Washington’s apparently rash actions, either sit on the sidelines or actively speak out against US policy. Instead, Beijing is the target not only of a growing number of critics, but also in active disputes with a variety of liberal nations.

From influence campaigns to hacking, from economic threats or coercion to the militarization of international waters, Beijing is increasingly pursuing a foreign and security policy that it targets against large parts of the world, regardless of what happens in the US-Chinese relations.

Perhaps the sharpest tensions are currently between Australia and China. Australia has seen economic warfare from its largest trading partner since it passed tough laws in 2018 to ban Chinese money from its domestic political system, ban Huawei from its 5G networks, and call for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Beijing has since ended economic dialogue with Canberra, banning billions of dollars in Australian products, including beef, wine, wood and lobster, or imposing harmful tariffs. In response, Australian Foreign Secretary Marise Payne canceled two Belt and Road projects, and an Australian general warned of the high likelihood of armed conflict between the two countries.

Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr. told Beijing to "get the fuck out of the waters of the West Philippine Sea that Manila calls". The highly undiplomatic sentence came after months of Chinese pressure on Whitsun when China once whipped up hundreds of fishing vessels to intimidate Manila into abandoning the reef, à la the successful takeover of Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Beijing has the Hague Permanent Arbitration Court ruling from 2016 against China's claims in the South China Sea was largely ignored and its fishing fleets and naval forces continued to be sent into disputed waters.

India remains on a combat basis in the Himalayas, where Chinese forces regularly cross the so-called line of effective control in strategic passes between Aksai Chin and Ladakh. The clashes there between the armed forces of the two nuclear nations in the summer of 2020 resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese. Indian commanders have stated that Chinese actions are the most aggressive since the 1962 border war between the two.

As for Japan, its air force fought nearly 1,000 times in 2019 to counter Chinese incursions into the airspace over the Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu in China), while Chinese ships entered the contested waters 333 times in 2020, forcing the Japanese Coast Guard and marine to answer. This continues a pattern of intimidation that spanned a decade.

Even New Zealand, criticized by some in the West for being too reluctant to advocate Chinese policies like the suppression of the Uyghurs or the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, has begun to change its minds. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently stated that it is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile differences with China, its largest trading partner.

You can agree or disagree with Joe Biden's or Trump's China policy. What is evident, however, is that other leading nations around the world are equally concerned about Beijing's threats to regional stability, freedom of navigation, domestic economic and political systems, democracy movements and intellectual property. In short, whatever you think of US policy, the problem is not simply that Washington is looking for a new enemy to fight. Rather, countries that share broadly liberal values, based on their own perception, believe that Beijing also poses a threat to their way of life to some extent.

Given this environment, Britain’s new desire to become more involved in the Indo-Pacific is understandable, even though UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he is "fervently sinophile". His government now, like others, recognizes that it has to deal with the China it has, not the China it wants.

Given this reality, the more assertive policies of the Trump and Biden administrations make sense. In particular, the quad alignment of the United States, Japan, India and Australia is particularly helpful in building a common security consensus among the leading liberal nations in the region. The quad will not replace America's defense alliances, but it can play a different role in promoting common norms and collaboration.

The Quad Leaders' Meeting this spring was a major milestone, but attendees need to start by discussing broader objectives and the sensitive issue of what joint action they are ready to take to put that emphasis on security and stability. Given the tensions each of these countries have with China, the grouping is unlikely to be seen as anything other than anti-China. However, this should not be an excuse to derail the coalition. The new commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. John Aquilino, will have the opportunity to help shape the next phase of the Quad initiative in collaboration with White House Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell.

In addition, Washington and its Asian partners should consider how other non-Asian nations concerned with regional stability can play a joint role. Here the French and British are the most likely candidates. In addition to their reliance on open trade routes, the countries combined have nearly millions of overseas citizens or overseas dependents in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as areas stretching from the southern Indian Ocean to Oceania in the Pacific. Both have identified the Indo-Pacific as a key strategic concern. The French released several Asia strategies while the British highlighted the region in their recently completed integrated review.

No one will pretend that Paris or London can play a role comparable to Washington, but neither should their interests be denied. With the British dispatching HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region and the French joining the Quad nations in maritime exercises in April, these two nations have the potential to support regular quad activities and the more limited skills of the Japanese, Indians and Americans to complement Australians.

In a number of important capital cities in Asia and beyond, patience with Beijing appears to be exhausted. No state is unaware of its economic ties with China or the fact that the world's second most powerful nation will undoubtedly play an important global role. However, it is Beijing's policy, not American shamefulness, that is provoking an international response.

In response, a united front of numbers and common interests is not an artificial creation but a natural evolution in response to Beijing's actions. The world no longer needs to admit its goodwill for having tried for half a century to integrate China into global economic and political systems. The records of such efforts are clear, including repeated reluctance to cost Beijing any cost of predatory behavior or breaking agreements. Now leading nations are realizing that it is time to figure out how to defend both their interests and the broader community that has helped maintain peace among the great powers since 1945.

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