The People’s Republic of China is an adversary of the United Kingdom. Its disregard for international maritime law in the South China Sea poses a threat to international trade. China’s authoritarian values challenge British perception of the world. Identifying the PRC as an adversary is easy. Developing a strategy to counter it is not. Strategists on both sides have assumed a decisive naval battle in Chinese littoral waters. The UK lacks the capability to do this unilaterally and there are question marks over the reliability of Britain’s traditional allies in the region . The UK needs a new strategic concept, which operationalises national fusion doctrine against China. Without it, the UK risks standing idly by while an authoritarian power shapes the world in a way prejudicial to British standing and interests.
What is the problem?
The problem is two-fold. Firstly, China itself is a near-peer adversary, arguably peer, to the UK. Its policies are largely in opposition to UK interests. China lays claim to nearly the entirety of the South China Sea. The country is engaged in an assertive campaign of Island building undermining international norms. China regularly conducts aggressive naval patrols to assert and protect these claims, challenging the status quo. Given that 12% – £92 billion – of UK trade flows through that sea, this is a concern. More broadly, as a maritime nation, ensuring free navigation of the seas by all nations is a vital UK interest.
Further, China is exporting its model of deeply unpleasant techno-autocracy to other countries. This a threat to human freedom globally. More prosaically, democratic participants in the international order are better partners to advance UK interests than autocracies beholden to Beijing.
The second problem is that conventional approaches are not useful in this context. The Armed Forces would be severely stretched to mount a credible conventional threat to China in the South China Sea. The UK cannot, for example, easily sustain substantial forces in the Spratly Islands without endangering vital commitments closer to home. Moreover, even if funding could be secured, explaining to the British people the importance of prolonged operations in the South China Sea would be problematic. The UK must change its strategy and find a new way to contest China which is within its resource.
The solution; deterrence on the periphery?
The solution is to leverage a fusion of civilian and military power to attack China’s periphery. Loosely defined, this is their business interests and state partnerships in central Asia and Africa. The intent, outside of open war, is not to destroy the periphery. Instead, it is to dramatically increase the costs and complicate its implementation. This imposes a costly strategic choice on China to either accept a significantly larger investment and reduced benefit from overseas endeavours, or retreat from them with a disastrous impact on personal prestige.
This could be pursued with a two-track strategy of citizen and state engagement. The UK should significantly expand existing public diplomacy programs by providing training and resources to investigative journalists and citizen watchdog groups in targeted countries. As China leverages elite corruption to achieve favourable deals, equipping the public to more effectively scrutinise their leaders restricts Chinese options.
More broadly, taking steps to promote and strengthen democracy through citizen engagement would serve as a firewall against authoritarian puppeteering. This also applies in the UK. A free press and informed body politic are some of the best weapons against corruption. This is that it could be done with minimal additional cost or risk to the UK. Journalism is relatively inexpensive when set against new weapons platforms. In 2018, the British Council received £168m from the government (about the same as two F35B Joint Strike Fighters).
The second track is targeted engagement by the UK with governments in Africa and central Asia. This does not mean selling arms or other goods. Nearly anything that the UK can produces, China already makes in greater quantity. Instead, the UK should leverage specific capabilities to achieve influence over targeted countries. For example, Royal Navy offshore patrol vessels should be partnered with national navies and coastguards on a semi-permanent basis, extending UK influence and building good-will. The Specialised Infantry Battalions of the British Army can take on a similar role and delivering training to build and maintain state links. The long-standing British relationship with Oman is an example of this approach working in the field.
The UK could also exploit strong links with Europe and the United States to boost diplomatic initiatives and ideas. The result is that, working with the United Kingdom would enhance national connectivity with few or no costs. In contrast, continued engagement with China would bring heavy economic and political downsides. This presents other countries with their own strategic choice and Britain the means to influence them.
All of this assistance should not be provided on the basis of a country cutting all ties with China. That is unrealistic. However, it would give the UK leverage to discourage some problematic practices and assist citizen pressure to achieve longer lasting change.
And in the event of war?
Civic and diplomatic engagement is all well and good, but the UK should be ready to engage in armed conflict if necessary. Previous articles published in the Wavell Room have called for defence investment at a “Keynesian level” so that, in the event of war, and taking the argument loosely, the Royal Navy could sail into the South China Sea, destroy the Chinese fleet and impose the nation’s will from there. This is not viable on two levels.
Firstly, the Royal Navy is not capable of conducting such an operation independently. If such a strategic concept were adopted, the Royal Navy would have to be wholly subordinate to the US Navy to achieve success. At a time when there are question marks over the convergence of British and US values and interests, taking such a decision as a junior coalition partner is a risk. Moreover, such a clash would likely involve heavy casualties even in the event of victory. Explaining this to the public would be a challenge without a clear case for war.
Secondly, such an operation strays very close to the nuclear threshold for China. If the Chinese navy were to be defeated and coastal defences suppressed then the mainland would be at risk of attack. In that environment, the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons,with all their inherent escalatory potential,would be attractive to Chinese strategists. Britain should, as a matter of course, avoid strategies that could plausibly lead to nuclear war.
Having recognised the necessity for preparing armed conflict, yet dismissed the “in-vogue” plan for it, what strategic options does the UK really have? One option it is to pursue a strategy which further prosecutes the Chinese periphery while imposing a soft blockade on their imports.
Firstly, the UK should plan to use overt military power to destroy or seize Chinese investments west of the Straits of Malacca. The Chinese base in Djibouti would be a prime target. However, other Chinese owned ports and projects could also be subject to attack. These locations are not heavily covered by anti-access/area denial weapons meaning the UK could concentrate on weakness. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines can therefore effectively attack them. This presents China with a difficult choice. Either they do nothing, risking internal opposition and economic problems. Or they sail a task force into the Indian Ocean, leaving their anti-access umbrella and risk being destroyed by Royal Navy submarines and carrier aviation.
Secondly, the UK can use its diplomatic influence and military reach to impose a ‘soft’ blockade on goods. This does not mean a physical operation to stop and search ships; that would be logistically challenging and foster broad political opposition. Instead, it would consist of deploying diplomatic, economic and cyber pressure to discourage actors from exporting to China. Fuel oil is a particular vulnerability which could be exploited, as China is a major importer. There is precedent here; the British blockade of the First World War was enforced by simply buying supplies that would otherwise go to Germany.
The end result of a combination of these two policies, a strong political and military fusion, would be a China which has had its prestige hurt and economy damaged, with years of careful overseas expansion rolled back. It would be incapable of effectively reversing the situation short of strategic nuclear escalation. Given it would not be a war of national survival, this threshold is unlikely to be met. This makes peace the most likely outcome. This strategy would be effective in protecting British interests and is not wholly dependent on US assistance.
China is a definition foreign and security policy challenge and the UK must formulate a strategy that allows the country to maintain its economic power and diplomatic prestige. The UK does not have the capability to directly contest China with conventional force. Instead, the UK should define a strategy which seeks to avoid a contest at a time and place of China’s choosing by prosecuting their vulnerability periphery. This does not mean absolute containment, but rather raising the costs of expansion to the point that further efforts in that direction are slow and very expensive.