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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.


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.

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Pacific Trident III:  The Strengths and Weaknesses of the U.S. Alliance System Under Gray Zone Operations

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Security Nexus, 30 March, 2020

“What have I come here to learn?” This was the question at the forefront of my mind as I entered a modern, glassy, corporate site on a cold, wet Norfolk day in early February. The large room was cavernous and approximated my vision of a secure control center, with busy people at consoles in a pit facing three massive screens at the front, and a raised deck to their rear, housing an operations control center. I thought of the 1983 film, War Games, and, in a sense, that was an appropriate parallel as I was attending a tabletop exercise, “Pacific Trident III,” created and run by Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (Sasakawa USA), a think tank based in Washington D.C.

The exercise itself – the set-up – was actually quite interesting for a mid-career East Asia analyst like myself. It was not the usual North Korea crisis or Taiwan-China crisis, but rather a realistic combination of two different scenarios. The starting point was for the China team to 1) expand Chinese influence and authority in East Asia and 2) drive wedges between the United States and its allies. The China team began the game by persuading the North Koreans to “initiate” a minor but ambiguous provocation – a small special operations ground attack on a U.S. base in the South – while China simultaneously landed “humanitarian aid workers” on a Taiwanese-administered island in the South China Sea in the wake of a typhoon.

It was a clever and interesting set-up that confounded the United States and allied players in the initial stages of the game in two fundamental ways. First, it utilized two different crises at the same time, challenging the United States and allied players as to which was the “real” crisis, or which merited prioritization. Second, both crises involved actors using gray zones tactics (operations other than war) to achieve their objectives. In many ways, the fact that there were two gray zone operations at the same time showed the alliance system’s strengths and exposed some of its weaknesses.

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South China Morning Post, Wendy Wu, 19 March 2019

Dr John Hemmings, director of the Asia Studies Centre and deputy director of the Henry Jackson Society, a Britain-based think tank, said at the same event in Washington that Britain was considering formalising a policy of sharing intelligence with Japan.

He said about US$124 billion worth of trade – 12 per cent of Britain’s total – went through the South China Sea each year, “quite a significant amount of our revenue, so we would be concerned about anyone – China or whichever regional country – trying to control that waterway”.

“[Britain] will not lead, but certainly it will follow and will join and become a responsible partner of the community of the states that are interested in an Indo-Pacific concept,” Hemmings added.

The Netherlands said in October that it would send a warship to join British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on its first operation deployment in Indo-Pacific waters in 2021.

“We’ll see more of that,” Hemmings said, adding that Britain, Canada, Australia and various European countries would be “banding together and operating in groups like this”.


Gavin Williamson’s critics miss the point. There is a strong case for resisting Chinese aggression

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The Telegraph, 17 February, 2019

China’s decision to cancel a trade summit with the UK over remarks made in a speech by Gavin Williamson seems like bad news for Britain – it is estimated that the expected deals could have been worth £10bn over five years. Former Chancellor George Osborne accuses the Defence Secretary of “gunboat diplomacy of a quite old fashioned kind”.

The insinuation of these comments is clear: Williamson has hurt the economy by angering China. Yet beneath the outrage, China’s reaction suggests that the UK is finally beginning to develop a coherent response to Chinese aggression.

China’s current diplomatic aim is to persuade foreign governments that access to its market is based on largess and nobility, rather than the rules and regulations of the World Trade Organisation – heaven forbid we expect China to play by the rules. Not only is this type of discriminatory access illegal, it is also unlikely to be effective.

As British officials confided in me last year, Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama sent diplomatic relations into freefall, but barely affected trade. Deals continued to be signed. Political leaders were simply deprived of photo opportunities. Similar headlines which spoke of Beijing being “enraged” overlook the clever reward-punishment strategy deployed by Chinese leaders, which leverages market access to persuade countries to overlook or accept their expansionism. We are idiots if – knowing this – we bend to their manipulation again and again.

Williamson’s speech was hardly the fire-and-brimstone some critics are suggesting. I would defy readers to find an offensive word in it. He speaks of sending Royal Naval forces to “the Pacific region”. The Sun has creatively re-branded this as “threatening to send a British aircraft carrier to China’s backyard”. Really? As well as China, the South China Sea is shared by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Parts of it are more than 1,800 km from mainland China (for context, the distance between London and Moscow). China has no legal claims to the South China Sea, beyond usual practice on the high seas.

The Government’s new Global Britain policy emphasises its support for the ‘rules-based international system’. Yet the widespread criticism of Williamson suggests that these are mere buzzwords to our foreign policy elites. The Defence Minister deserves more support. What he said would hardly have surprised the Chinese, and he was simply doing his job of putting forward a strategy for protecting Britain’s interests.

report by the Henry Jackson Society, published a week before Mr Williamson’s speech, attempted to define Britain’s interests in the South China Sea and called for the very transit that has now so angered Beijing. Of course protecting jobs and replacing access to the common market are crucial goals for this government, which must be balanced with hazy geostrategic terms like “freedom of the seas”. However, even if we were to discount our responsibility to our Asian allies and partners, it would be unwise to sell out for deals worth a mere £10bn in cosmetics and poultry. This figure is dwarfedby the £124bn of UK trade that crosses the South China Sea to southeast Asian markets. Selling out British national interests in open and free trade routes isn’t just short-sighted, but terrible fiscal arithmetic.

China has built multiple military bases, bristling with anti-ship missilesthree of them larger than the US military’s Pearl Harbour. If you wish to control something, that is exactly what you do.

Press reports also talk about British officials embarking “on a frantic round of diplomacy to try to get the talks back on track”. This humiliation is likely the only real punishment that China will end up handing out.

In all of this, we overlook China’s reasons for wanting to trade with Britain. Skyrocketing food prices – the product of Trump’s tariffs – are pushing them towards alternative sources of poultry. The poisoning of citizens by dangerous counterfeit cosmetics gives China another strong incentive to reach a cosmetics deal with the UK, where standards are higher.

For all that Treasury figures might talk down our global standing, we should not forget that Beijing needs Britain to internationalise the Chinese currency, the renmimbi. Their new London Embassy, to be built in the heart of the City, reveals a long-term interest in accessing UK finance, fintech, and computing.

Finally, there are important – though much overlooked – ethical arguments. Are we really going to continue to aggressively pursue trade deals with a state that has re-created concentration camps for the modern era? Foreign policy elites in Western nations are still grappling with the moral conundrum this presents. Whatever our ultimate conclusion, I am convinced history will judge Mr Williamson’s remarks rather more favourably in years to come.

Britain needs to steel itself for the fight – if we decide to stand up to China, there will be far worse days than a cancelled summit.


Daily Express, Marco Giannangeli, 11 February, 2019

Report authors James Rogers and Dr John Hemmings, said: “In the South China Sea, the People’s Republic of China is seeking to revise the Law of the Sea by asserting a number of unlawful and excessive claims over various international waters and low-tide elevations.

This is important because the UK, a maritime trading power, relies on maritime communication lines, which in turn depend on the cohesion of the rules-based international system.

“Maintaining a persistent naval presence in the Indo-Pacific – not least the South China Sea – comes at a cost.”


Daily Express, Harvey Gavin, 9 February, 2019

But despite the risks, the HJS report says the UK should project its power into the South China Sea and uphold the law of the sea by carrying out its own freedom of navigation exercises in conjunction with allies.

The authors conclude: “The South China Sea may seem like a distant geopolitical theatre to the UK and therefore largely peripheral to core British national interests.

“However, nothing could be further from the truth: aside from its economic significance to British trade, which is considerable and growing, it marks a sort of litmus test for the durability of the rules-based system.”


Charting Britain’s Moves in the South China Sea

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RUSI Commentary, 6 February, 2019

A British naval presence in the South China Sea strengthens global security and Britain’s global role. But it must be matched with a more systematic approach to the region, and to China’s defiance of legal norms.

Last summer, the HMS Albion, an amphibious assault ship colloquially described as one of the Royal Navy’s ‘Swiss Army knives’, undertook what is widely believed to have been a freedom of navigation manoeuvre near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. In doing so, the British government has shown that it is committed to upholding the rules-based order and asserting its market access rights in Southeast Asia. This was commendable for two different reasons: it projects a Britain that is willing to take the diplomatic and economic risk in the name of upholding maritime rights that benefit many smaller and medium-sized states in the region; and it shows that despite the Brexit process and contrary to the established narrative in the media, British foreign policy elites still view themselves as having something to contribute to the global system.

Yet however commendable HMS Albion’s transit in the South China Sea may be, it raises the question of what is next? How does ‘Global Britain’ – an avowed objective of the government – follow up on this naval transit in a meaningful and sustainable manner? Also, how does it avoid coming into conflict with China, which has begun to push back on US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in a way that raises concerns about a possible miscalculation or naval incident at sea? In short, how does the UK avoid a situation in which an incident causes the loss of life of even just a single British sailor, leading to broader political questions about Britain’s role in ‘meddling’ in the affairs of ‘far-off peoples’, about whom allegedly it knows little?

A recent Henry Jackson Society report sought to answer these questions with a number of policy recommendations, which might alleviate or soften the risks, while searching for ways to adequately resource and sustain operations far from British shores. The report proposed, for example, that the Royal Naval vessels might carry out two different types of freedom of navigation manoeuvres to defend British access to the seas: jurisdictional; and territorial. In the first instance, the Royal Navy might challenge the excessive jurisdictional powers that China has claimed for itself, such as Beijing’s demands for advance warning of ships transiting its contiguous waters. In this instance, Royal Navy vessels need only carry out an innocent passage through the waters but, notably, without requesting permission or giving advanced notification, thereby indirectly refuting jurisdictional powers China is seeking to obtain.

In the second instance, Royal Navy vessels might challenge China’s excessive territorial claims – particularly those straight baselines drawn between islands – by sailing through them in a manner not befitting innocent passage. This might involve carrying out a brief man-overboard drill or the operation of a helicopter.

There is a question, naturally, of whether the Royal Navy should take part in such operations inside the 12 nautical mile line of certain Chinese features as the US Navy has begun to do. While there are risks in doing so, there are also risks in not doing so, particularly those man-made features or low-tide elevations, where China’s excessive claims are ridiculous. However, should the Royal Navy take part in such jurisdictional or territorial challenges, it must do so in a manner that does not increase instability in the region or risk a military response.

One way of decreasing risk is by opening up the programme to collective action of a number of like-minded states, but in a way that does not increase the number of vessels in-area. There is, for example, the ‘ship-rider’ programme, originally proposed by former US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift. He found that many states – both in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe – were torn between their national interests in upholding their maritime rights and their national interests in receiving Chinese investment and trade. China’s leadership has of course realised this and has become increasingly willing to ‘punish’ states in highly symbolic ways that impact domestic foreign policy debates in offending states. The HMS Albion’s transit, for example, was greeted with a threat in the China Daily – a state-run newspaper – that future transits could ‘put a spanner in the works’ of a post-Brexit free trade agreement.

The ship-rider idea aims to soften potential Chinese punishment by using collective action. So, for example, the next Royal Naval vessel to carry out a freedom of navigation manoeuvre might have on-board uniformed officers from, say, NATO, India, certain EU states which are not members of the Alliance or, perhaps, even regional states like Vietnam or the Philippines. Such a manoeuvre compounds and entangles China’s punishment strategy and also raises the prospect – however dim – of Beijing beginning to realise that increasing multilateralism around the South China Sea issue will necessitate compromise.

Another way of multilateralising the freedom of navigation manoeuvers in a manner that does not increase the risk of miscalculation is the ‘multiple hulls’ programme, whereby multiple ships transit the South China Sea together, with only one carrying out a freedom of navigation manoeuver while the others wait just outside the sector. So for example, a number of European powers might sail through the South China Sea on their way to take part in port visits, with only one taking part in the manoeuvre.

Such a concept is already a reality, albeit a very incipient one, through the various groupings which are being formed in the region: the US-Japan-Australia trilateral and the US-Japan-India-Australia Quad are both fairly new quasi-alliance groupings that have sprung up in the wake of China’s expansion over the South China Sea. A Global Britain that really wished to sustain its presence and its interests in the region could join such groupings and take part in interoperability-building joint exercises, like Cope North Guam or Pacific Bond. The former is an annual air warfare exercise in which British Typhoons might show their capabilities, while the latter is an annual trilateral maritime warfare exercise, to which Britain could display its anti-submarine-warfare-heavy Type-23 frigate.

A Global Britain that really does stand for the rules-based international system and wishes to protect its market access in Southeast Asia and the wider Pacific will need to craft a number of overlapping strategies for dealing with a variety of challenges. It will have to contend with the logistics and geographical challenges that the vast distances present, although Britain is lucky that it has access to many regional strategic hubs, including those in Singapore, Diego Garcia and Brunei. While geography presents many challenges, it also imposes a useful constraint: Britain has to rely on regional partners and allies for its forward-basing and must should negotiate new basing agreements with friendly regional powers. France’s recent basing agreement with India might serve as a template.

Britain will also have to craft an all-of-government China policy to deal with the political and economic challenges of an assertive rising state. It must be remembered that China needs access to Britain’s financial markets, its technologies, and its diplomatic and media soft power networks, just as Britain courts Chinese investment. But only when China realises Britain’s resolve would the government in London begin to have a real – if still marginal – impact on Chinese policy.


UK Defence Journal, Henry Jones, 30 January, 2019

The report, published by The Henry Jackson Society and entitled ‘The South China Sea: Why It Matters to Global Britain‘, claims China’s “unlawful and excessive claims” in the area pose a significant “threat to British interests”. The UK must continue to “reject Chinese claims over international waters”.

It recommends establishing a policy of Royal Navy vessels cruising through to the sea to deter China, in addition to sending HMS Queen Elizabeth to the area when fully operational in 2020-21.


Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific

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Henry Jackson Society,  22 May, 2018

The weight of the global economy is going to Asia, it is going by sea – and the United Kingdom must act now if we are to build a truly Global Britain, according to a new report from The Henry Jackson Society.

Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific notes how the future of both the economic order and the rules-based international system will be decided in the Indo-Pacific. China’s growing naval power, its militarisation of sea lanes and its Belt and Road Initiative indicate not only a power determined to become wealthy, but one determined to set the rules of the coming age. However, many of China’s Asian neighbours seek to defend rules over power.

With Britain looking for new opportunities abroad in the wake of Brexit and the economic and demographic realities pointing east, the report argues that the UK must reinvigorate its partnerships with historic allies in the region, not least India and Japan – while also redeveloping new “special relationships” with Commonwealth countries such as Singapore.

The report highlights that:

  • The global middle class will grow 50% by 2030, with much of that growth taking place in the Indo-Pacific – spawning hundreds of new cities, industries and opportunities.
  • Over 90% of global trade is carried by sea and that maritime trade will only increase as regional powers struggle to bring consumer goods and energy to these new cities.
  • China seeks to exert control over these sea lanes in order to protect its own sea lanes, constrain India’s rise and set the rules for the coming era.
  • The Indo-Pacific is becoming a forum for competing visions of international relations – with many of Britain’s historic allies beginning to align in loose security groupings based on respect for maritime conventions and law.
  • The UK, dependent on the rules-based order and the sea lanes in the region, will ultimately have to adopt the “engage and balance” approach that most Asian powers have adopted towards China.

While endorsing the ‘cautious engagement’ approach of Prime Minister Theresa May to China, the report recommends that Britain should:

  • Seek a number of overlapping security relationships across the Indo-Pacific with large numbers of partners – including the ‘Quad’ of the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
  • Create “special partners” in ASEAN – not least Singapore, where Britain should explore the possibility for regular ‘2+2’ meetings between the two countries’ defence and foreign ministers.
  • Renew her security relationship with Australia – a useful “node of access” for the UK, as Australia is developing closer relations with key allies including the US, Japan and France.

Standing up for the rules-based international order in the face of the challenge from China should also involve:

  • An incremental increase in Britain’s defence spending, from the current 2% of GDP to 3%. This, with a particular focus on the future of naval and air power, would equip the UK with the requisite tools to have a truly ‘global’ influence.
  • Invest in soft power diplomacy to improve ties with Asian countries. These should involve a rise in funding for language programmes at British universities, particularly in Japanese, Chinese and Hindi; and providing help financing infrastructure development across the region, to counter the Belt and Road Initiative.

Read the full report here.

Jeremy S. Maxie

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