China’s Digital Challenge

With David Dorman, CSIS Commentary, 11 May, 2022

Last week saw General Secretary Xi Jinping chair the state-level Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission in Beijing. It was an important meeting focused on the challenge of boosting economic growth under pandemic conditions, in part through a new “all-out” effort on infrastructure. It was important for another reason, perhaps a far more important one for the United States. Xi Jinping once again accelerated Digital China, Beijing’s comprehensive digital strategy designed to help it win the future.

This part of the meeting outcome did not make the U.S. headlines, but it should have. There are multiple drivers behind China’s digital strategy, but one of them is competition, and in particular, technology competition with the United States. It is always useful when you are competing to know that the race has started. This race started more than 20 years ago, and according to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) history, Xi Jinping was the one who started it. The contest is personal, and Xi moved another piece on the board.

The Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission’s all-out effort on infrastructure is widely defined, but it specifically included the acceleration of new type infrastructure (NTI). Easy to miss, the term describes a centrally defined list of digital technologies, numbering in the low dozens, targeted for rapid development and nationwide installation. Many of these technologies will not surprise you: 5G6G, or blockchain. But some of them will: a satellite internet of things, a nationally integrated network of big data centers, or an industrial internet with global reach. And the list goes on. This recent acceleration is likely to be on top of an estimated 17.5 trillion yuan (nearly $2.7 trillion) over five years, already budgeted.

NTI is one of Digital China’s major technical missions. There is no standardized English language translation for this Chinese term of art, despite Beijing designating it as such more than two years ago. One might see it in English as simply new infrastructure, or new kinds of infrastructure, and a few other variations. NTI is reported so often in Chinese media that there are now specialized terms for the campaign, like “information aorta,” coined by Xi Jinping himself in 2016. While few outside China recognize these terms, party cadre and Chinese citizens know exactly what they mean because they have been subjected to constant party-led planning, meetings, and education campaigns across the country.

Xi Jinping first accelerated construction of NTI at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic to take advantage of the “strategic window” offered by a distracted world. His intent was to jump-start a stalled economy under Covid-19 through an immense digital infrastructure campaign. The Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission meeting is an expanded version of the same playbook. There is a twist, though. By building NTI “in advance” of users, applications, or even the data it will carry, China will, so the strategy argues, take the lead in growing markets, writing standards, and developing governance mechanisms—a sort of “build it and they will come” field of digital dreams.

Over the past few years, the United States and its allies worked to eliminate, or at least curtail, the security risks posed by Huawei-manufactured 5G equipment to national networks. But they also approached the problem in an overly narrow way. Although 5G—the future of network architecture—is a major part of the challenge posed by China, it is only one part of the challenge. Digital China executes national projects through “bundles” of multiple technologies connected together in technology ecosystems. The development of China’s industrial internet, for example, requires 5G, gigabit optical, cloud computing, blockchain, and data centers, to name just a few. The project is executed as a coordinated whole, with the involvement of multiple state agencies, provincial-level authorities, and telecommunications vendors, both foreign and domestic. To use Beijing’s terminology, the program is executed from the center based on a top-level design. To focus on only one technology is to miss the forest for the trees.

Major Chinese digital projects, made up of multiple technology ecosystems, can be huge both in geographic scope and global implications. The recently launched Digital Beibu Gulf (Digital Gulf of Tonkin) is a case in point. The project is designed to digitally transform the transportation corridor through China that links Belt and Road countries in Southeast and South Asia by building a new digital hub in Hainan Province linking southwest China to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This is “in advance” NTI construction, and the United States and its allies should see it for what it is: another round in the coming global competition over data.

In another example, Huawei has recently signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Yantai Huadong Electronic Science and Technology Corporation to expand their work together into Smart Ports, a technology ecosystem that has the potential to straddle global shipping. Yantai Huadong manages a large portfolio of Smart Port projects in China, has a growing international business, and wants to expand more. The technical muscle behind Huawei can help a lot with that (and not just 5G). If Huawei is a security risk regarding 5G, is it a security risk with one, two, or three degrees of separation from the dozens of Chinese firms it cooperates with like Yantai Huadong (and not just on Smart Ports)? What if the cooperation with Huawei is not on 5G, but instead on Huawei cloud or data services? What about the Western firms that work with Yantai Huadong who work with Huawei—are they security risks, too? These are all part of Chinese “technology ecosystems,” or bundles, and the risks associated will only grow with the developments.

As the United States and its allies begins to take stock of the technology competition, it is important to avoid the continued focus on single-type technologies like 5G or quantum computing. There is already a number of extremely good—but localized—portraits of Chinese efforts in supercomputersdata managementartificial intelligencequantum5Gsemiconductorsinnovationcybersecuritysmart cities, and biotechnology, but it is important to begin to try and understand the overall strategy driving these disparate efforts. The United States and its allies should also begin to understand how these technologies intersect with each other in the various bundles developed by China and how they will impact global governance and order. Given the growing momentum inside China—the driving tempo of NTI—and the increased prioritization of political attention, increased resourcing, and strategic planning, it will be vital to understand Beijing’s wider strategy and assess its efforts.


Should the Quad become a formal alliance?

Air Force University Press, Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, 1 April, 2022

There is a growing contradiction in the security situation in the Indo-Pacific. The more possible a conflict over Taiwan has become, and the more that China’s hegemonic intentions are revealed —at both the regional and global level—the more that the leaders of the US-Japan-Australia-India Quadrilateral, (herein called the “Quad”) hedge about the group’s ultimate purpose. Indeed, they seem to go out their way to avoid defining the Quad as an alliance or a form of security architecture, which is quite at odds with what both history and international relations theory suggest should occur. In an interview with media in September 2021, for example, a senior US official called the Quad “an unofficial gathering,” adding that “there is not a military dimension to it or a security dimension” Only six months previously, India’s Army Chief General M.M. Naravane told the Indian media that while there would “definitely be military cooperation both bilaterally between the countries of the Quad and as a quadrilateral also, it would not be a military alliance in that sense.” Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison—fresh from the diplomatic flurry caused by the Australia–United Kingdom–United States (AUKUS) submarine deal—was also ambiguous: “The Quad is a partner, whether it be for China or any other country in the region, we’re there to make the region stronger, more prosperous, more stable.” This approach seems counter to international relations theories that examine the rise of expansionist or hegemonic aspirants.

According to one of the most prominent theories, neorealism, state behavior is driven primarily by the distribution of material capabilities in the international system and changes in that distribution are a source of anxiety: “Rising states pose a challenge to others and inspire them, almost automatically, to balance against the challenger either internally by arming or emulating one another’s military practices and technologies, or externally by allying with other states.” While it is true that the Quad members are internally fortifying themselves with military capabilities and that they have created the Quad, a quasi-alliance, it is still a form of underbalancing since they are underplaying its military aspect and eschewing collective defense commitments. This article examines alignments and alliances before the First and Second World War and during the Cold War. Looking at the first two periods, we can see that underbalancing by democracies is not particularly unusual historically. It happens more often than not and often fails to deter aggression by other powers. If one looks at how different types of states create alliances, it is arguable that democracies find it more difficult—for reasons related to the domestic debates within their foreign policy elites —to balance rising threats. This is partly because neither publics nor policy elites are willing to bear the entrapment costs associated with an alliance if there is not a sufficiently threatening rationale to justify it. Indeed, until relatively recently, the very nature of Chinese assertiveness was widely debated among Western international relations scholars. However, those debates are of decreasing relevance as attitudes toward China evolve and it is viewed less positively, and even as a “threat” within all four Quad nations. Thus, this article will argue that not only are policy elites within the Quad underbalancing by avoiding mutual defense commitments, but also that they might be inviting the very aggression by China that they seek to avoid.

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With Bill Hayton, Council on Geostrategy, October 2021

The development of relations between the United Kingdom (UK) and Vietnam comes at a time of great change in the international system. Her Majesty’s (HM) Government’s ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ published in March 2021, recognised the need for the UK to adopt ‘a sharper and more dynamic focus’ so as to ‘adapt to a more competitive and fluid international environment; do more to reinforce parts of the international architecture that are under threat; and shape the international order of the future by working with others.’2 The Integrated Review noted, in particular, the combination of opportunities and threats emerging from Asia. As a consequence it declared a ‘tilt’ in UK policy to ‘pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific in support of shared prosperity and regional stability, with stronger diplomatic and trading ties.’3 It said the UK would look to ‘cement’ its ties with Vietnam as one of several countries identified as important to this objective.4

Vietnam has also recognised how complex the regional and international environment has become, noting in its 2019 Defence White Paper how the Indo-Pacific ‘region still remains the ground for major powers’ rivalry and influence intensification, harbouring destabilising elements, traditionally and non-traditionally alike.’ It asserts that ‘[d]isputes over territorial sovereignty are likely to become more complex, potentially leading to conflicts, threatening regional stability, peace, and prosperity.’5Vietnam has, for some time, recognised the importance of diversifying its international relationships beyond its immediate neighbours into what is called a ‘multidirectional’ foreign policy.6 This strategy is a form of ‘hedging’, by which states neither fully balance against, nor bandwagon with, other states. Instead, Vietnam uses its multidirectional approach to create ‘as many equidistant partners [as possible] to ensure freedom and protect itself from overdependence on one particular power.’7Given the importance of economic development to its overall national security, Vietnam has prioritised the growth of foreign investment and trade. To this end it has concluded trade and partnership agreements with many countries, particularly in Europe.

In the wake of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU), Vietnam has moved to strengthen ties with the UK. While the internal and international situations of the two countries are very different, there are many opportunities for cooperation. In the past few years, the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the impact of climate change and shifts in the international order have brought the governments of the two countries closer together.

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With Prof Peter Varnish OBE, Macdonald Laurier Institute, September 2021

The international environment is increasingly insecure. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, China and Russia are attempting to reshape the international system and constrain the liberal democratic West. State competition is changing, in a shift towards deniable, intrusive, and non-military threats against all sectors of society and, as a result, liberal democracies are increasingly looking for collective ways to respond. To meet this growing global challenge, Canada could do much more with the historic Five Eyes grouping that also includes the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

The Five Eyes began primarily as an intelligence-sharing and technology collaboration arrangement. But in a new joint publication between the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, authors John Hemmings and Peter Varnish argue that the Five Eyes grouping could be used by Canada and others to expand the ability to counter and deter China and Russia across multiple areas, including technology, information, military, and economics.

According to the report, titled “Evolving the Five Eyes: Opportunities and Challenges in the New Strategic Landscape,” the Five Eyes has many advantages, from its proven history of creating effective personal relationships across all five countries to its ad hoc, fluid informality which makes it an ideal vehicle for expanded security cooperation. The countries share a common language, democratic traditions and legal systems and they have largely compatible militaries and security practices.


Council of Geostrategy, Britain’s World, 19 August, 2021

The dramatic images of the Fall of Kabul have driven rounds of recrimination and finger-pointing in the West. However, as the G7 countries prepare to meet virtually next week for an emergency discussion on Afghanistan, it would do well for them to consider the position of another of the region’s great powers – the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While the PRC’s state-owned media have already leapt on the event as ‘humiliating’ for the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US), and attempted to draw lessons for Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party from the ‘abandonment’, it is also beginning to frame the event as something which will require a ‘deal’ with the US, a potential bargaining chip to reshape its current adversarial relationship with Washington without having to address US concerns or complaints. 

The G7 need not take this Chinese ‘discursive statecraft’ at face-value. It is indeed natural for the PRC to dress up its efforts to stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan as a favour to the West, but American, British, and other allied leaders should understand the PRC’s equities in the country clearly. While the Chinese leadership itself has not yet decided whether to manage this crisis with or against the West, its own interests in the war-torn country are well-documented. G7 leaders should instead use the following baseline assumptions as they think through any attempts at a Chinese-Western settlement.

The PRC has a strong interest in a stable border region: Preventing further unrest in the quasi-colonial territory of Xinjiang is a core interest for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as its gross violations of human rights there reveal. Given the fact that Afghanistan and Xinjiang share a border and the fact that the Taliban has maintained links with various international Islamic groups in the past, this is a serious concern. Over the past few years, Chinese intelligence networks inside Afghanistan and Chinese-Taliban diplomacy in Tianjin have spearheaded the effort to detach the Taliban from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement – a group with which it naturally aligns. In his meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Wang Yi, the PRC Foreign Minister, called for the Taliban to ‘completely sever all ties’ with the group. 

The PRC has a strong interest in Afghanistan as a source of minerals: Afghanistan is the world’s largest unexploited reserves of copper, coal, cobalt, mercury, gold, and lithium, valued at US$1 trillion. Its rare-earth metals may be worth even more. In addition to owning the mining rights to the world’s second largest copper mine in Afghanistan – said to be worth US$1.2 billion in annual output – the PRC is already the Taliban’s largest customer for minerals, a trade that now represents the group’s largest revenue source (US$464 million), outstripping narcotics (US$416 million). This also represents a large chunk of total Taliban revenues, which are said to be around US$1.6 billion, a point made more salient by the freezing of Afghan government reserves held in US banks. Chinese state media has already made a point of stating that it can meet the anticipated fiscal shortfall (a predicted 20% fall from the previous pledge of US$15.2 billion between 2016 and 2020) in Afghanistan’s coffers through official direct investment as part of the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

The PRC has a long-term interest in incorporating Afghanistan into the BRI: Despite a recent focus on domestic infrastructure, the Belt and Road Initiative remains Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project. As long as he remains General Secretary of the CCP, that will continue to be the case. The BRI is a quasi-imperial project that seeks to offshore access to industrial capacity and labour, while also tying regional states closer to the PRC’s economy. Dual Circulation theory, the CCP’s current economic strategy, sees the PRC intending to create trade asymmetries between it and other trading powers, so that its domestic economy drives growth, while others remain dependent on Chinese trade and investment. No doubt, the use of infrastructure financingand a debated-but-still-relevant concept, ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, would also give Beijing direct influence over the Taliban’s leadership. 

The PRC has a strong interest in sidelining India in any settlement: Beijing may seek to sideline India from having a major role in Afghanistan, and there are two strong reasons why the G7 countries should again invite India’s leader Narendra Modi to any virtual meeting and any subsequent diplomacy with China. First, India has been developing strong links to Afghanistan over the past 20 years and sees it as a priority issue. Second, while Afghanistan is bound to become somewhat reliant on China for future economic and trade development, India and the Gulf states could and should provide enough economic diversity to soften China’s heft. 

Thus, when the G7 leaders meet next week, they should frame any cooperation with the PRC in terms of the mutual interest all parties have in a stable Afghanistan that does not harbour or export Jihadists. After they have established that, they will have to discuss how to balance cooperation with the PRC in Afghanistan within the greater strategic context of geopolitical competition. No doubt, the CCP leadership will be doing the same. The G7 will have to balance and prioritise their interests within the relationships with the PRC, with the Taliban, and with any resurrected non-Pashtu Northern Alliance group – should one arise. It is a fluid time calling for diplomacy and strategic decisiveness. 


NBR Special Report 90

With Prof Wade Turvold (USN Ret), NBR Special Report, 25 May, 2021

The U.S. and Japan produced the New Defense Guidelines in 2015 that created the alliance coordination mechanism (ACM) to enable the allies to better manage crises. The ACM has proved useful but is showing some limitations in handling the challenges of complex gray-zone activity posed by China. This is in part due to the differing definitions of “gray zone” in Japan and the U.S., which could lead to confusion over appropriate response mechanisms. This uncertainty may have the unintended effect of giving China the power to set the tempo of activities in and around the Senkaku Islands to incrementally wrest control from the Japan Coast Guard. There are also growing concerns that the ACM is insufficient for dealing with kinetic operations above the threshold of gray-zone operations. Therefore, the U.S. and Japan should consider reforming the ACM, reorganizing U.S. Forces Japan, and developing a command and control (C2) structure for crises just below and above the gray-zone threshold.

POLICY IMPLICATIONS
  • Japan and the U.S. must find a common definition of gray zone that will enable them to agree on the threshold where gray-zone activity ends and conflict begins.
  • Japan and the U.S. must strengthen the ACM by constant usage and rehearsal in order to allow it to function properly during a fait accompli gray-zone operation by China.
  • The disjointedness of U.S. C2 in the vicinity of Japan could be a significant challenge in a fast-paced crisis above the gray-zone threshold. The allies should consider creating a unified command structure for the alliance, given that the current “coalition-style” approach to C2 could prove insufficient for dealing with a peer competitor with a unified command in a crisis scenario.

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What the UK’s Tilt to the Indo-Pacific Means for India

Observer Research Foundation, Atlantic Files, 28 March, 2021

The release of the UK’s Integrated Review (IR) last week and the Defence Command Paper this week have sparked a smallbut vigorous debate as to the direction of Britain’s global posture with many speculating on the meaning of its “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific. After all, its founding assumption was “[The UK] must also do more to adapt to major changes in the world around us, including the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region”. This growing enthusiasm for engaging in the region certainly offers a great opportunity for Delhi to partner with London. Despite these exciting prospects, some critics have noted the word “tilt” contrasts unfavorably with the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to Asia from 2011. A tilt is not a rebalance after all, indicating less than full commitment by the UK to the region. But then it was never quite realistic to expect an island-nation in the Euro-Atlantic to throw its full diplomatic, economic, and military resources into a part of the world many thousands miles away. Having said that, experts with a close knowledge of the IR say that it is best understood when considering the last iteration of a security review, the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, and point to the significant shift in London’s China strategy.

The 2015 review noted the importance of the Asia Pacific, but it was buried in a section called“Allies, Partners, and Global Engagement” and only came after sections on Europe, the Commonwealth, the Five Eyes, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as sub-Saharan Africa. It noted the region’s “significant economic opportunities” as well as its “considerable influence on the future integrity and credibility of the rules-based international order”—a binary at the very heart of Britain’s approach to the region. If one thinks back to 2015, London was attempting to strengthen Chinese inflows of investment, while also trying to shore up the rules-based international system (RBIS). The contradiction within that policy has been a mainstay of many countries’ approach towards China. But the difference between the 2015 review and last week’s IR is striking when one considers how China is treated in the two documents. In the 2015 review, just one year after Beijing carried out a sausage-slicing take-over of the South China Sea trade route, the Cameron government was, nevertheless, laying out the red carpet for China’s leader Xi Jinping, giving him the honours accorded a full state visit—a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, and the declaration of a UK-China “Golden Era”. Compare that with the description of China as a “systemic challenge” in the IR.

Areas where the two overlap is in the economic-security binary, and the 2015 review asserts that the region’s importance “to our economy and security; it is a focal point for the negotiation for international rules and norms, and will become more important to UK prosperity.” Given the UK’s historic identity—the creator of a global trade-based, maritime empire—it should come as no surprise that as London leaves the stifling embrace of a Berlin-led European Union, it should look to the traditional  geographic and geo-economic drivers and national interests. The difference being, of course, that the UK comes as a fullymature liberal democracy with a history and political culture at odds with its imperial past. Thus, while the geopolitical variables are the same—maritime-based trade in an increasingly contested order—the UK’s response will the different, charged with democratic liberalism rather than commercial imperialism.

However, where the IR begins to seriously differ from its predecessor is in the handling of that economic driver. Previously, under the leadership of Cameron’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, London seemed to treat China and Asia as one and the same. In defending Britain’s decision to join the Beijing-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), he stated it would be“good for a world where we draw countries together in cooperation, good for Asia because it is going to help bring investment to this continent.” Indeed, the fantasy of tapping at will into Beijing’s large currency reserves acted as a sort of charm inside Whitehall, deployed by the Treasury to beguile political masters against those in the Admiralty and Foreign and Commonwealth Office who held misgivings. It is difficult not to see last week’s Integrated Review as a victory for those constituents against the “Golden Era“ adherents, buoyed by China’s own actions, such as in 2017 when it reneged on the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong—a treaty document registered with the United Nations—and in 2018 when it began an imperial project of cleansing Xinjiang of its Uyghur Muslim population.

The Integrated Review also deepens the UK’s commitment to regional states like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.Oddly, it does not mention the Quad security grouping at all within the IR’s 114 pages, but its non-appearance could be down to diplomatic sensitivities. The UK has indicated interest in the Quad but will not wish to be seen to be muscling in. Either way, it is a surprising omission. In speaking to the UK–India relationship, the paper tracks the broader trend inside the West of treating India as a rising power in its own right, courting its participation and leadership in the Commonwealth and looking to it for increasing UK–Asia trade flows. Given the post-COVID trade-flow vulnerabilities and Beijing’s increasing use of economic coercive statecraft, this desire to diversify away from China is a significant opportunity for India, ASEAN, and others. Notably, this trade diversification strategy has already seen the UK negotiate trade deals with Japan, Australia, and has opened negotiations with the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership(CPTPP) trade group. Naturally, this will include defence trade, something that will be nicely paired with the HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group’s tour through the Indo-Pacific region. When it comes to helping regional states build naval capacity—particularly those based around advanced maritime operations—the Royal Navy and UK Defence Inc. intend to be an agile and willing partner.

The Integrated Review is not a perfect document, but it offers a broad strategic direction for the UK and a signal of intent to India and other Indo-Pacific powers. James Rogers, founding director of the Council of Geostrategyasserts that the emphasis on the Indo-Pacific is “a heavy one” and that “India has been identified as a pivotal country, with the likelihood of growing ties between London and New Delhi in the years ahead”. As we consider an uncertain future in the waning months of the pandemic, it will be, indeed, interesting to see whether or not that prophecy is realised.


China and Russia: Closing the Maritime System?

Council on Geostrategy, Long Read, 10 March, 2021

The news that the upcoming Integrated Review will focus on emerging technologies and non-traditional domains is to be welcomed, particularly those relating to cyberspace, space, and artificial intelligence (AI). In addition to increasing the United Kingdom’s (UK) conventional deterrence capabilities, this also gives its forces the ability to push back and fight in the information domain, a space where Russia and China are increasing the tempo of their ‘grey zone’ operations and influence campaigns. However, as the democracies increase their capacities in these new sectors, the basic truths of the current global order should not be forgotten. At its heart, the rules-based order is more of an onion with overlapping architectures, with a core, based on the maritime domain. And it is within that system that China and Russia are seeking to rewrite the rules.

The maritime domain covers two-thirds of the earth’s surface. As a result, more than 90% of global trade takes place by sea, with 200 countries having ports capable of handling container shipping. In 2019, the total value of annual world shipping trade was estimated to be US$14 trillion, comparable to China’s economic output for that year. Despite a contraction in the shipping industry caused by the United States (US)-China trade war and the Covid-19 pandemic, the global market for cargo shipping remains robust and is expected to rebound in 2021. The importance of the maritime domain to the survival of nations has long been recognized, as sea access allows for states to become stronger through trade, while sea power allows for states to contest or deny trade to other states. 

The development of the current ‘free sea’ – or mare liberum – system was not an inevitable outcome of historic trends. While it is true that various empires have struggled to assert control over the sea as they have over land, it is not for a lack of trying. A number of countries have tried to lay claim to navigational, fishing, and trade rights in what are now known as international waters. During the fifteenth century, Castile (Spain) and Portugal attempted to enforce a ‘closed sea’ – or mare clausem – system across the globe with the 1454 Treaty of Tordesillas dividing the maritime domain into a Portuguese Hemisphere (covering the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, right up to the southern shore of Japan) and a Spanish Hemisphere (covering the mid-Pacific to the coastlines of the New World). While the agreement was initially bilateral, they attempted to give the treaty universal authority by lobbying the Vatican to add its weight to the agreement. In 1455, Pope Nicholas V duly issued the Romanus Pontifex Bull which legitimised mare clausem. While it is questionable to what extent the two countries’ claims were widely accepted in Europe – France refused to accept them as binding, for example – Spain and Portugal believed these waters, their islands, and contiguous territories were the property of the crown. Hugo Grotius’ seminal textThe Free Sea in 1609 was as much about negating this order as it was proposing the foundations of a new one.

When considering Russian actions in the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Chinese actions in the Southern Sea Route (SSR) between Asia and Europe, it is vital to consider whether these constitute an incremental attack on the underlying principles of mare liberum and an attempt to assert rules and norms more in keeping with mare clausem. What are the grounds for believing that they are doing so? 

Extended jurisdiction: At the heart of Russia and China’s actions in the Arctic and the South China Sea are their attempts to extend special rights over waterways that are quite expanded from those afforded by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to Section 3, Article 17 of UNCLOS, ‘ships of all states, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.’ In asserting the right to ask ‘advanced permission’ of foreign naval vessels that seek to carry out ‘innocent passage’ through its territorial waters, China is infringing on the rights of other seafaring states. This is compounded by its drawing of straight baselines around islands, islets, and claiming territorial waters for submerged features that do not deserve them. Similarly, Russia has begun to assert a conditionality upon the rights of other nations to ‘innocent passage’ along the NSR (beyond those stated in UNCLOS) and it has announced a requirement for vessels to give 45 days’ notice and request permission from the Russian government for foreign vessels to transit. The Russian Izvestia newspaper stated at the time that ‘Russia is taking the Northern Sea Route under protection.’

Location, location, location: While many countries have had protectionist maritime policies within their own territorial waters, few impact global trade in the way that Russian and Chinese claims do. Both are carrying out their activities in seas that also straddle the most direct routes between the manufacturing heartlands of Asia and the advanced economies of Europe. For China, the SSR straddles access to Middle East oil and burgeoning African markets. Around 30% of global maritime crude oil trade – around 15 million barrels per day – transits the South China Sea. While the NSR is not yet functioning as a year-round trade route, it saw 27 million tonnes of cargo volume in 2020 and is set to continue rising. In 2016, the World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Council on the Arctic predicted that 30% of Asia-Europe container trade would transit the NSR by 2030 since it is 35% faster than the southern sea route. The area is also thought to be home to abundant fishing prospects and untapped carbon reserves.

Military coercion: China and Russia have sought to codify their expansionist maritime claims in national laws and used the presence of localised military forces to enforce their claims. China’s ‘island fortresses’ in the South China Sea have been extensively covered by the international media through think tanks like the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which uses commercially available satellite imaging in analysis. According to AMTI, China has bolstered these islands with airfields, hangars for combat aircraft, radar and sensor arrays, and mobile surface-to-air and anti-ship missile systems. In the NSR, Russia has spent considerable resources building up its air and maritime early warning systems and reopened fifty previously closed Soviet-era military bases in the Arctic – including thirteen airbases, ten radar stations, and twenty border outposts. It established the Arctic Strategic Command in 2014, strengthened the Northern Fleet, and updated its naval strategy in 2017 to include a large Arctic component. It has also developed and tested new Arctic-based cruise missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones. In sum, it would appear that both China and Russia have – with little fanfare or resistance – sought to assert political and military control over fulcrum points of maritime sea trade. 

In some ways, the rise of China is more of a concern because of its economic heft and ability to use this to coerce surrounding nations. While the ambition of Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, to turn his nation into a ‘maritime great power’ can be viewed as a natural and inevitable result of China’s rise as a global manufacturing hub and top exporting nation, there are worrying signs that Beijing will reshape the basic rules of the global order to suit its preferences. Doing so will help China realise its global ambition to ‘move closer to centre stage’. The growth of China’s port ownership around key trade routes and maritime chokepoints enhances its influence over the maritime order, while its growing naval clout also means it may have the power to enforce these new rules. In September 2020, the US released a report acknowledging that China’s fleet had surpassed that of the US in numbers (350 to 293). 

Taken together, these shifts in maritime order – legal, political, and military – portend a maritime domain with new rules and norms suited to the preferences of Beijing and Moscow. This is to the detriment of countries that rely on the SSR and NSR for future economic growth and prosperity. While Britain’s position as either a Euro-Atlantic power or an Indo-Pacific power might be debated, it is clear that it must be a maritime power, working with other like-minded seafaring democracies to maintain a free and open sea in both sea routes. It should either work with – or join – the Quad to ensure continued access through the SSR for all. It should also work with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to shift more attention and resources north, and develop a common ‘Three Eyes’ – Canada, US, and UK – approach to respond to Russian activity in the Arctic and North Atlantic. 

Noting China’s ‘continentalist’ approach towards the maritime domain, Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Seapower at King’s College, London, has written that if China replaced the US as the world’s leading power, ‘it would shatter the global economy and the sea power model that sustains it.’ Common action by the UK and other democracies should ensure this occurrence remains remote.


America’s New Great-Power Problem

With James Rogers, The National Interest, 23 January, 2021

We often seek lessons from history. Thucydides famously wrote that he wished for his History of the Peloponnesian War to be “useful for by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future.” Winston Churchill wrote that he sought to make his history, The Second World War, a “contribution to history that will be of service to the future.”  

And yet, no sooner is a comparison made than a critic responds that the historical analogy is malformed, citing major differences between those periods and our own. After all, not all diplomacy with an aggressor leads to a “Munich” moment, not every step, a step “across the Rubicon,” nor every rising power destined for a “Thucydides Trap.”

The imposition of broad sweeping comparisons from the past should, of course, be avoided, but this does not mean that lessons cannot be extracted from history when dealing with certain types of scenarios. So while history does not necessarily repeat itself, it can certainly echo. Structural variables work to influence complex political behaviors in ways that are repeated. The fact that practitioners themselves are immersed in history, accentuates this. So how can today’s policymakerattempting to design policies that deal with China’s risedraw from the past, without making category mistakes or sweeping generalizations? 

When seeking historical instruction, a starting point might be to isolate common structural conditions or variables for comparison. These might include the form of political leadership, regime-type, the form of international polarity, methods of competition, and the impact of specific technologies on escalatory logics (e.g. how do nuclear weapons limit choices?). 

If we apply this typology to the three most recent historical episodes of “rising-power challenges,” then we believe that we can extract lessons in relation to the emerging competition with China. These periods include the European rivalry before World War I, the global competition before World War II, and the era of geopolitical struggle now known as the Cold War. From there, it is clear that there are many commonalities between those periods and the one we are moving into. What do these three eras of competition offer American, British and Indo-Pacific policymakers in terms of insight when dealing with the rise of China

  1. China has a leader around which power has become increasingly centralized to the extent that a cult-of-personality style of leadership has emerged. These behaviors might have been predicted in the first years of Xi Jinping’s regime by looking at his earliest speeches to the CCP cadre. As with other totalitarian leaders, such as Stalin and Hitler, Xi believes in the power of the party-state ideology to drive policy as well as consolidate domestic control. As we saw from those unhappy regimes, as power is centralized, intolerance towards pluralism grows, to the extent that minoritiesespecially those considered hostile by the regimecome under mounting surveillance and discrimination. Here there are echoes between the plight of the Uighurs and various ethnicities in Nazi Germany and the USSR. 
  2. Likewise, under Xi’s authoritarian leadership, more and more of China’s society has fallen under the power of an increasingly expansive party-state structure (similar to the totalitarian party-states of the 1930s), which utilizes an international ideology (socialism), combined with nationalism (with Chinese characteristics), to export the Chinese model abroad to reorder the international system. This approach is not unlike those of past regimes. Like the Kaiser, Xi believes China has the right to shine like the sun. Unlike Hitler, he shies away from open warfare as a means of policy. But, like the party bosses of the USSR, he believes in economic and political warfare to expand China’s power.In terms of regime type, we can see forces at work in China that were also found in Wilhelmian and Nazi Germany. This is because there are few mechanisms for legitimizing the leadership of the party, such as elections or referendums in one-party systems. Therefore, jingoistic nationalism begins to fill that spaceor is deliberately positioned to fill itand if allowed to become too virulent, can lead to domestic pressures for more aggressive, even expansionist, foreign policies.
  3. As an authoritarian state, contemporary China, much like the Nazi and Soviet regimes before it, has proven adroit at integrating the dimensions of state power to the extent that it appears more successful than the fatigued and exhausted liberal democracies. As we know from the struggles with those regimes, the United States, the UK and their allies in the Indo-Pacific region will need to develop greater internal cohesion and overcome many of the “critical” or “core” assumptions that have sapped them of their strength if they are to compete successfully against China. 
  4. In terms of polarity, the previous struggles were more focused. While Japan was a major regional power in the run-up to World War II, the key powers have been concentrated in the Euro-Atlantic region for the past three centuries. In the emerging period of competition, the major powers are spread out. China, India and Japan are in Asia, the United States is in the Americas, and Britain, Germany and Russia are in Europe. American, British and Indo-Pacific policymakers will need to look at an increasingly global theatre, one where the Euro-Atlantic region and the Indo-Pacific region are intrinsically linked. 
  5. Polarity matters, and whether this period is a transition to a bipolar U.S.-China era or a truly multipolar era will impact how states construct their national strategies. If China and the United States are the only superpowersor whether India and the Europeans are able to develop superpower metrics and the political will to use themthen that sill deeply impact alignment behavior, and correspondingly the leadership approach of the United States. 
  6. Methods of competition also have historical echoes. While China is, like the USSR, a communist regime, it has a much higher GDP relative to the leading democracy, the US, than the Soviet Union ever did. It is also, similarly to Wilhelmian Germany, deeply ingrained into global supply chains and the world economy. Therefore, rather than looking for examples of dealing with economic statecraft or coercion from the Cold War, policymakers might consider Wilhelmian Germany in 1914 which utilizeddumping, finance, and trade for strategic ends across Europe. Thus, we should look to the policy options of France, Italy, and the UK for dealing with economic conflict with China.
  7. The West relied heavily on regional alliances to deal with the Wilhelmian and Soviet threats. And now, similar to what occurred in the 1930s, there is an aversion to developing regional alliances or collective defense measures against today’s revisionist: China. This is despite the fact that NATO kept the peace in Europe for nearly seventy years. In addition, there is an allergic reaction to giving Taiwan an open defense guarantee; however, the 1930s showed that the same style of strategic ambiguity by France and Great Britain toward Austria and Czechoslovakia encouraged Nazi ambitions. Indeed, as we think about how Nazi Germany went from attempting to unify German-speaking peoples to absorbing non-Germans, we should think about whether or not a failure to react to more “legitimate” claims can give encouragement to entirely illegitimate ones. While modern-day China is not as aggressive as Nazi Germany, allied weakness and lack of cohesion at critical momentsas when Berlin took the Ruhr region, undermined the governments of Austria and Czechoslovakia before using diplomacy to expand its powermade miscalculation more, not less, likely. When thinking about Hong Kong and Taiwan, this is a relevant lesson. 
  8. In terms of technology, the possession of nuclear weapons remains a huge variable in today’s great-power competition. As we consider the current competition with China, it is clear that the major powers are, as during the Cold War, in possession of nuclear arms, most with fully-established global second-strike capabilities. This means that, unless technology becomes available that can circumvent the danger posed by ballistic or high-speed cruise missiles, escalation can only be “horizontal” and “diagonal,” rather than “vertical.” If we consider how the U.S./UK and USSR were similarly discouraged from escalating to open war with each other, we can see that the emerging era of competition will be pushed into below-the-threshold conflict with conflict taking place in the information sector, the digital sector, technology, space, and across other nonmilitary sectors. 
  9. Despite early Soviet advances during the “space race,”the United States, UK and their western allies were often in the ascendancy in terms of technology during the Cold War. The contemporary era of competition, however, is more likely to resemble the struggles with Wilhelmian and Nazi Germany during the early twentieth century, when the chief revisionist was technologically equal to, or even superior to, the established powers. This is because China has moved forward rapidly with the development of telecommunications systems and other industries of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. 

Here are the two takeaway points: First, historical examples are useful but there has been a growing trend in the public arena to criticize such analogies because they fail to precisely match our present day. This approach makes perfect an enemy of the good. We might not be in a “cold war” that equates exactly with the historic events of 1949 to 1989, but by looking for similar variables we can look back to that period for those relevant policies that worked while avoiding those that did not. Second, in this commentary, we have put forward ten lessons from history that we believe are instructional for the contemporary era. No doubt, many will disagree with them or have slight variations. That is wonderful, and such points should be put forward to debate whether we have drawn the right conclusions or not. We have primarily used them to show our variables might inform our analogies, providing perspectives to help policymakers.


With James Rogers, Journal for Indo-Pacific Affairs, December 2020

The assumptions made about British involvement in the Indo-Pacific and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) tend to rely on the constraints of geography rather than on interests in a rules-based system. This article argues that not only does Britain share interests with the Quad members in a free trading order—something that is threatened by Chinese and Russian policies —but it has also developed a set of capabilities and facilities across the region that give it reach. From the Persian Gulf and Oman, from Diego Garcia to Singapore, Brit- ain’s role in the Five Power Defence Arrangements and strategic relationships with regional powers mean that it is already an Indo-Pacific maritime power. Questions as to Britain’s inclusion in the still-evolving Quad are therefore entirely political in our opinion. Given the openness of Japan and the United States to external members, Britain could make for an interesting and useful addition to the Quad in the years ahead.

To continue reading, please click here. (From page 118).

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