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AUKMIN 2018: The Future of Global Britain?

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RUSI Commentary, with Milia Hau, 14 August, 2018

Britain and Australia face an uncertain strategic landscape. But there is much they can do together, as they deal with the two big powers which appear determined to change the current status quo: China and Russia.

The scene for the 10th annual Australia-UK Ministerial Consultations (AUKMIN) earlier this summer was visually stunning. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne met with their British counterparts, Jeremy Hunt and Gavin Williamson, at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh for the AUKMIN meeting. While the visuals were good, it was clear that both liberal democracies came to these negotiations nurturing some very serious misgivings about their strategic environment.

For Australia, it has been an annus horriblis, as it has lurched from one diplomatic spat with Beijing to another, all of them driven by Canberra’s belief that Beijing has been meddling in its domestic affairs and waging an influence campaign among the Chinese diaspora, as well as Australia’s own political elite. For the UK – apart from the running sore of Brexit – the year has been dominated by the Skripal incident in Salisbury, which saw the use of a nerve agent on British soil, resulting in the expulsion of 23 diplomats, and a crackdown on Russian oligarch investments inside the City of London. As these two neo-authoritarian powers become increasingly bold, both London and Canberra have had to deal with a US that is seemingly less reliable, or perhaps more transactional.

It has been an odd time for Western liberal democracies, as they have slowly begun to react to the new geopolitical competition that has intensified in the wake of 2014, when China militarised islands in the South China Sea, and Russia invaded and occupied Ukrainian territory. As a result, the AUKMIN joint ministers’ statement resonated with concerns for the rules-based order with a noticeable emphasis on the Indo-Pacific ‘which is open, prosperous, and inclusive’.

While there is a sensible debate on how far the UK can extend its resources to the region, a Henry Jackson Society report sought to argue earlier this year that the Indo-Pacific presents economic opportunities as well as geopolitical challenges. The region accounts for 60% of the global population and accounts for nearly two-thirds of global economic growth; it is – according to the IMF – the world’s most dynamic region by a wide margin. The decision of the UK and Australia to strengthen their track 1.5 Asia Dialogue last year recognised these dynamics.

How Australia and the UK decide to interact in the Indo-Pacific will become an essential part of the Global Britain strategy. The two states already cooperate in the Five Powers Defence Arrangements and both have growing defence and intelligence ties to Japan. Additionally, they might develop other nodes of regional cooperation, such as a potential Australia–France–UK trilateral, or the already-existing US–Japan–India–Australia Quadrilateral.

While there are serious concerns about the UK’s budgetary capabilities – witness the searing disagreement between Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and Prime Minister Theresa May about alleged proposed cuts to defence this past June – the Indo-Pacific region does at least present economic returns. The agreement by London and Canberra to pursue an ambitious bilateral free trade agreement once the UK has left the EU and its interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership are both opportunities, as is the budding defence industrial relationship. The recent revelation that the two signed a £20-billion deal for nine UK-designed warships might well be an indication of such returns.

As the region is set to lead global economic growth over the next 30 years, it makes sense for the UK to invest in capabilities and diplomatic reach in-region.

While distance still offsets the warmth found in the AUKMIN 2018, the fact is that working together can help both overcome this. The Royal Navy already has one base in Singapore. Perhaps basing rights might be exchanged between both navies; if successful, rights might even be extended reciprocally with the French, which have bases in New Caledonia and French Polynesia. In return, French and Australian marines may dock at British facilities in Singapore.

Another area that might be of mutual interest is that of the South Pacific. While it is a part of the world that few – if any – foreign secretaries think about, we could see this begin to change. Over the past few years, Beijing has been pouring money and developments into these tiny Pacific Island states. While development has traditionally been viewed as benign, the possibility of Chinese submarines docking at a recently built dock in Vanuatu – an island sitting on Australia’s shipping route to its ally, the US – has become a serious concern in Canberra this year. Britain’s decision to massively expand its economic and diplomatic footprint on Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Tonga will be warmly welcomed in Australia.

While it is true that the ‘tyranny of distance’ will keep the UK from becoming an Indo-Pacific regional power, Britain can become a significant player. There are multiple nodes of access available, including the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, the Commonwealth and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing structure. One excellent bit of news from the AUKMIN Ministerial statement is the prospect that London and Canberra will begin coordinatingmuch more closely on foreign direct investment into sensitive digital infrastructure, hopefully avoiding another debacle similar to that which occurred when London allowed the sale of a British data cloud centre to a Chinese consortium in 2017, causing the Australian Department of Defence to remove its data from the company.

Looking into the future, we see that the traditional picture of a US-led Western alliance confronted by Russian and Chinese authoritarianism has returned to mainstream global politics. Only this time, it is not always clear that the US will be as willing to ‘bear any burden’. This requires those great powers and middle powers to band together all the more tightly.

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The Daily Mail, Rachel Millard, July 25, 2018

Dr John Hemmings, director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think-tank, said: “Authoritarian powers like China and Russia have sought to buy and steal sensitive technologies in the West… this White Paper looks like a step in the right direction.”


Our companies have been wide open to foreign espionage for too long – now that is changing

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The Telegraph, 24 July, 2018

Today’s news that the Government is enhancing its powers to protect national security from hostile foreign actors by blocking corporate investments, mergers and acquisitions looks like madness. Can we really afford to be turning away investment at a time like this, with Brexit on the horizon??

Yet not only is this change long overdue, it will actually help with inward investment – quite the opposite to what its critics allege.

Though it may seem pernickety to some, the debate on investment screening has rattled all through Whitehall and the City since the summer of 2016 when the Prime Minister sought to review the nuclear power plant deal agreed for Hinckley Point with Paris and Beijing by her predecessor.

Among those tasked with protecting Britain, the fact that George Osborne had rejected a proposal put forward by Ed Davey – then Energy Secretary in the coalition government – for extra safeguards, without explanation, set alarm bells ringing. This worsened after an engineer working with the Chinese partner on the project (CGNP) was indicted by the US government for nuclear espionage.

Despite this, Downing Street was forced to submit to Chinese pressure after the China business lobby and Chinese Embassy filled British newspapers with stories. Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, wrote that British openness and mutual trust were keys to future collaboration, hinting that Chinese investments to the Northern Power House would be at risk. The “Golden Share” solution ultimately devised by the Government did little to hide the fact that an authoritarian power had just successfully pressured a British prime minister into accepting foreign intrusion into a sensitive part of Britain’s energy infrastructure.

While much of this sounds rather alarmist, the fact is that nearly every advanced economy has implemented new investment screening measures over the past few years. Germany passed new legislation in July 2017, which sought to check foreign direct investment into key sensitive areas such as telecommunications, cloud computing, IT, and critical infrastructures, while a similar EU screening mechanism was passed this past June.

Likewise, the new White Paper advises scrutiny on areas such as cloud computing, AI, quantum, and other high-tech areas. Notably, it recognises that the war-fighting technologies of tomorrow may not even be known yet, therefore giving the Government space to constantly check new technologies coming from the high-tech industry.

The overall reason has been the Chinese policy known as Made in China: 2025. This policy has become a major point of contention between China and the West, particularly the Trump administration. In a US government report, released in March, the US alleged that the policy is a form of mercantilism, designed to transfer the most advanced Western technologies to Chinese “national champions”, state-subsidized firms, which can then make them at cheaper prices.

To top it all off, once Chinese firms are able to master these technologies, their foreign competitors find themselves being pushed out of the Chinese market, the victims of trumped-up corruption charges, tax changes, or anti-trust investigations. According to Merics, a German think tank, the policy “aims for substitution: China seeks to gradually replace foreign with Chinese technology at home – and prepare the ground for Chinese technology companies entering international markets.”

In a report published by the Henry Jackson Society last year, we noted how Chinese investment has changed in scope and character over the past few years. Previously, Chinese investment had been dominated by private companies seeking raw resources and commodities from the developing world. From 2015, however, investment into the Western economies surged by 44 per cent, much of it into infrastructure and high-technology.

Worryingly, much of this shift in foreign direct investment was led by Chinese state-owned enterprises, with Rhodium Group – a consultancy firm – noting that they accounted for nearly 60 per cent of the value of all deals in late 2017. Problematically, while China was busy buying up companies like British cloud computing giant Global Switch or aerospace firm Northern Aerospace, it was barring British investors from those same areas.

The Government was absolutely right to get this White Paperimplemented in the meantime. The UK cannot afford to stop inward-bound investment; but nor can it afford to allow British businesses to fall prey to malicious investment, designed to extract and supplant British industry and design.

Nor can Britain’s security services allow any foreign power – particularly one that is building an Orwellian secret state at home – to embed itself into Britain’s digital infrastructure. The high level of intrusion that China’s citizens must bear at home must not become the lot of Britons at home.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the UK’s new White Paper will actually help with inbound investment by giving the security aspect a process and transparent standards. To give China due credit, the whole Hinkley Point debacle could have been avoided if there had been a process by which screening could take place – instead of fighting in the court of public opinion.


Lessons from the America-Japan Trade War of the 1980s

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The National Interest, with James Amedeo, 2 July, 2018

The current wisdom is that there are no winners in trade wars. This message is inherent in nearly all coverage on the United States President Trump administration’s tariffs campaign on China, the European Union, and Japan. However, is this really true? History tells us that sometimes, there are winners in trade wars—all it takes is for one side to blink first.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the White House was faced with a powerful Asian economic power that manipulated its currency, subsidised its companies, and erected stiff non-tariff barriers to imports. Washington’s response was to put 100% tariffs on electronics, force voluntary restrictions on the aggressor’s auto, steel, and machine industries, and adopt laws that restricted the country’s steel, lumber, and sugar industries. But this wasn’t a nascent People’s Republic of China (PRC), it was the U.S. treaty-ally, Japan.

For approximately a decade, Japan and the United States engaged in a small-scale trade war. The United States achieved a tactical victory in the war with the 1985 Plaza Accord when the U.S. argued that it and Japan should abandon the fixed exchange rates that had prevailed after the Second World War. The result was that U.S. imports dropped in price as the dollar fell and Japan entered the bubble economy, which was ultimately to lead to the Lost Decade.

While there are many differences between the PRC now and Japan in the 1980s—the PRC is an authoritarian power and a peer competitor, rather than a U.S. ally—there does seem to be similar structural features in how the two approached trade, and how they approached access to their home market.

Thus far, the PRC’s strategy has been to respond to U.S. measures in kind. This reciprocity is somewhat ironic, given widespread complaints about Beijing’s lack of market access reciprocity. President Xi’s economic adviser, Liu He, has been the central player behind this approach. Shortly after Trump gave the green light on tariffs worth $50 billion of Chinese products Beijing retaliated with tariffs of their own that totalled up to $34 billion. Liu He even went so far as to pick the same date to enact their tariffs, July 6.

The difference between the two sets of tariffs lies in the contents. The Trump tariffs focus on parts and components used in high-technology manufacturing, machinery, automobiles, and transportation, while Xi’s tariffs focus mainly on agriculture exports like soybeans. This latter strategy seems odd until one realizes the Chinese dependency on U.S. high-tech. These items are unlikely to be targeted by Lieu He as long as Made in China: 2025 is a crucial part of Xi’s platform. Under that plan, China aims to improve its domestic production of high-end technology.

The Trump team has, of course, realized this, and therefore focused primarily on this area, both to stop the loss of valuable American intellectual property and to put pressure on the PRC through the threat of urban job losses. The example of the Chinese company ZTE is telling. With 74,000 workers jobs risked by its expulsion from the U.S. economy, Beijing focused the entirety of its next move on attempting to remedy this. While the PRC’s attack on farmers—who are a part of Trump’s voter base—threatens success in the Midterms, the White House’s attack on ZTE was much quicker, and some would say, more effective at moving Beijing.

There is a lot of noise around Trump’s tactics, saying that he represents chaos or anarchy. However, if one looks at the U.S.-China relationship since he came into office, one can discern a pattern.

First, communicate with the other side that you are unhappy and want to negotiate. One could argue that this occurred during the Presidential campaign when Trump consistently repeated the trope that China was “killing the American economy.” Second, develop a personal relationship with your opponent and give him time to make an offer. This occurred when President Xi was invited to the President’s estate at Mar-a-Lago. Filled with personal bonhomie, the president also joked during the Press Conference that Xi had not given him anything yet.

Second, if you are ignored, give the other guy something to think about. Cause him pain. This is not meant to be punitive, but to prod the opponent into really engaging with you. Famously, Beijing has promised structural reforms to previous U.S. administrations, only to renege. The first round of steel tariffs was a sign that Trump’s patience had finally run out. Perhaps symbolically, the replacement of Gary Cohn by Peter Navarro at that time as Trump’s key economic advisor was a message the U.S. would now be taking a more hard-handed approach.

Whatever the drivers are for the tariffs the end goal should remain the same for the Trump administration—Washington needs to focus on structural reform in China rather than on the reduction of the trade deficit. The trade deficit of $375.57 billion has become a useful political tool in Washington and, while it may be powerful, it is also dangerous. This is because it focuses on the symptoms, rather than the cause. In the words of former U.S Under Secretary of Commerce Frank Lavin, “If they give you a check, watch out. They’re sort of buying you off and getting you just to go away for that money.”

Trump could ‘win’ this trade war by getting Beijing to blink by seriously addressing the structural and intellectual property concerns raised in the March U.S. Trade Representative report. Whether Xi can make these changes and continue his China Dream, on the other hand, is debatable.


Sydney Morning Herald, Latika Bourke, 30 June, 2018

“I think the British government has now woken up to the fact that the Chinese are not on our side on a number of issues,” [Lord] Howarth says.

John Hemmings, a close observer of China at the Westminster think tank the Henry Jackson Society, agrees.

“Despite Brexit, some aspects of UK government have quietly begun to shift into the new paradigm vis a vis a rising geopolitically ambitious China,” he says. “On the home front, they have begun to follow the lead of countries like the US, Germany and Australia in screening Chinese state-led investing into sensitive sectors of the economy.”

 


It’s not just Rolls-Royce: China is stealing every technology that isn’t nailed down

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The Telegraph, 16 June, 2018

The arrest two days ago of a Rolls Royce engineer for allegedly spying on his employers on behalf of China did not shock many in aerospace. It’s no secret that China is attempting to develop an indigenous aerospace industry and will do everything it can to get its hand on modern Western-designed jet engines. Such is the complexity of these engines that they are virtually impossible to reverse-engineer.

But this story has become a bit of a motif of late. Nearly every week, we hear of another story of alleged hacking of corporate secrets by some Chinese entity – or, worse, resorting to outright robbery, as might have happened to Pelamis Wave Power, a Scottish alternative energy company that saw a Chinese start-up appear only months after its offices were burgled.

So what’s behind it all? What is driving these stories? Well, to some extent, China is a driver of its own success and a driver of its own reputation. Over the past two decades, China has been implementing policies that some say unfairly help its firms to acquire foreign technology, either at home in the Chinese market, or abroad, when they invest in overseas markets, including the British one.

Rather than developing indigenous technologies, they prefer to steal, beg or borrow those of others, leapfrogging up the technology ladder. And they don’t mind stooping to different means: China’s current domination of solar energy technologies is alleged to have come after Chinese hackers stole files on panel technology from Solar World America. The subsequent government support for Chinese firms to build solar panels at much cheaper prices than US and European firms put many Western solar power companies out of business.

Are these policies illegal according to the World Trade Organisation? Indeed, they are, but getting them to that stage takes political support from their own governments.

The Chinese government policy most associated with this issue is Made in China: 2025, which has been widely criticised by the US government, the German government, among many others. According to James Lewis, a technology expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIC), the policy seems to have three stages.

The first is to require foreign firms attempting to enter China’s market to hand over their intellectual property in critical sectors such as robotics, alternative energies, quantum, and new energy vehicles. The second is to provide government subsidies to Chinese firms to go out into the international market and sell these newly-acquired products for cheaper prices. The third is to dominate these sectors by driving out foreign competitors.

According to Peter Navarro, an economic advisor to Donald Trump, these sectors have a strategic implication for the future of Western security, as national governments look more and more to the high-tech sector for the next generation of military technologies.

The news this week that the European Council and European Parliament have passed investment screening mechanisms shows that Western governments are seeking to maintain a level playing field for their own firms and stopping buy-outs that either seem driven purely by the desire of China to gain intellectual property with military connotations. Germany passed legislation last year screening investment and the US has also tightened up its own Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), making sure that Chinese firms cannot simply swoop in and buy high-tech firms and give their IP to Chinese competitors.

The May government is current considering a White Paper on investment-screening, having already tightened up the current Enterprise Act (2002) and broadened the remit of the Competition and Market Authority (CMA). Given China’s voracious appetite for British high-tech and the impact its theft has on British companies, this is a welcome and appropriate response. Britain is open for business, but in a fair way that gives all sides a level playing field.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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