Terry Barnes: The significance of this new U.S-UK-Australia security pact – and Johnson’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific

17 Sep

Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government.

It may have been missed in Britain midst the excitement of Boris Johnson’s reshuffle and the attention-greedy Sussexes making the cover of Time, but this week’s announcement by Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and Scott Morrison of a ‘trilateral security partnership’, to be known as AUKUS, is hugely significant.

It is to be a relationship of defence, technological and security cooperation. While it essentially formalises existing exchanges between three traditional allies, that in itself has historic strategic and geopolitical implications.

Here in Australia, this announcement is huge news. Not only is Australia formalising a security pact with her two greatest and closest traditional allies, but she is also being admitted by the US and UK into a very select club: countries operating nuclear-powered submarines. Morrison’s government is thereby walking away from a costly but irretrievably dysfunctional contract with the French to co-build a dozen conventional next-generation submarines, exposing itself to billions of dollars in termination costs.  But this hasn’t been a deal-breaker.

That AUKUS was announced, within eight months of the next Australian general election, is even more significant. It’s one thing for a conservative government to sign such a security agreement and pursue nuclear submarines. It’s quite another for a traditionally anti-nuclear and US-skeptical Labor party opposition to endorse such a radical reshaping of Australia’s national security framework. Yet it has – today publicly committed itself to the agreement should Labor win next year’s election, a possibility if opinion polls are right.

Furthermore, just weeks after marking its 70th anniversary, the joint announcement confirms that the ANZUS alliance of Australia, New Zealand and the United States is officially dead.

New Zealand suspended ANZUS almost 40 years ago, because it refused to allow US nuclear-powered ships into her ports: this week, Jacinda Ardern insisted that this bar would apply to nuclear-powered Australian submarines as well. Since New Zealand’s inflexible opposition to nuclear-powered ships sits with Ardern’s refusal to join any Five Eyes strategic arrangements that might antagonise China, AUKUS effectively kills off whatever vestiges of ANZUS are left.

Australia, on the other hand, has been increasingly vocal about the Chinese regime’s geostrategic muscle-flexing, as well as its internal behaviour. Morrison was the first world leader to demand that China account for the origin and escape of Covid-19 from Wuhan, and has given his MPs free rein to criticise China’s strategic ambitions and human rights record – despite the regime’s wolf warrior bullying diplomacy and trade retaliations. AUKUS reminds Xi Jinping that ‘little’ Australia has great and powerful friends, and that she does not stand alone in calling out his bullying.

Jinping certainly should sit up and take note of this critical new development. The two great Anglosphere powers are joining a third, Australia, in making it emphatically clear to China and the world that the Pacific and Indian oceans are not Chinese lakes. The UK and US giving Australia nuclear-powered submarine capability – with the speed, endurance and stealth that this capability ensures – means that there will be a local nuclear-powered, if not nuclear-armed deterrent straddling the approaches to busiest blue water sea-lanes in the world running through the South China Sea.

But from Britain’s perspective, this is a truly remarkable strategic development, the significance of which may not be immediately realised outside Whitehall.

AUKUS is not just sending HMS Queen Elizabeth through the Indian and Pacific Oceans to make an important but nevertheless symbolic freedom of navigation gesture to demonstrate Britain’s resistance to China’s increasingly bellicose aggression. For the first time in the half a century since she withdrew a standing presence from east of Suez, the United Kingdom is joining a formal geostrategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

That sends not only a starkly clear message to China: it reassures the entire Indo-Pacific region, and especially India, Japan, and South Korea – and Hong Kong and Taiwan – that their security interests are also British interests. Johnson, Ben Wallace and Liz Truss – fresh from negotiating, with Australia, Britain’s first post-Brexit free trade deal – have grasped the importance and necessity of the UK re-engaging in the Indo-Pacific strategically as well as economically.

And the United States benefits, too, in that strengthening the offensive as well as the defensive capability of a key regional ally in Australia will, in time, ease the burden of what Paul Kennedy years ago called ‘imperial overstretch’. Biden may have forgotten Morrison’s name in the leaders’ announcement hook-up, but surely realises how strategically important a politically stable, but strategically-strengthened, Australia will be to the overall peace and stability of the entire Indo-Pacific region.

To be sure, in Britain this announcement was overshadowed by other events. But in the longer term, AUKUS may well be part of any tangible and lasting legacy of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

Benedict Rogers: How Parliament, and Tower Hamlets Council, are leading the way on standing up to China

15 Sep

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.

All too often we take our institutions of democracy for granted, all the way from the Houses of Parliament to our local councils. Worse, we often mock them, regard them as an annoyance or regard them with disdain. Sometimes with good reason.

But once in a while, some of their office holders surprise us by standing up for principles and values, defending the integrity of their institutions, and displaying considerable courage.

Yesterday was one such day. It was a good day for Britain and our democracy – and a poke in the eye for the world’s most insidiously dangerous threat to freedom, Xi Jinping’s mendacious, criminal and brutal Chinese Communist Party regime.

And the heroes of the story? An unlikely, incongruous band. The Speakers of both Houses of Parliament, Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Lord McFall of Alcluith, and a cross-party group of councillors from Tower Hamlets.

Just after 4pm yesterday afternoon, the news broke that the Speakers of the House of Commons and House of Lords had banned the Chinese Ambassador, Zheng Zeguang, from entering the Parliamentary estate to address a reception of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on China tonight.

The rationale? Of course ambassadors of many countries attend meetings in Parliament, including those of repressive regimes that abuse human rights. But the Chinese regime – in addition to committing genocide against the Uyghurs, dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms in breach of an international treaty, perpetrating atrocities in Tibet, intensifying persecution of Christians, forcibly harvesting human organs from prisoners of conscience, silencing Covid-19 whistleblowers, shutting down civil society, independent media outlets and citizen journalists and disappearing or jailing human rights defenders – has sanctioned five Members of Parliament and two peers.

At least two of those sanctioned Parliamentarians – the former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP and the cross-bench peer Lord Alton of Liverpool – not unreasonably objected to the idea that the Chinese ambassador should be feted in the very Parliament his regime had assaulted. They raised questions in both chambers publicly, and wrote to both houses’ Speakers too.

At the eleventh hour, Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Lord McFall stepped in.

“I regularly hold meetings with ambassadors from across the world to establish enduring ties between countries and parliamentarians,” said Sir Lindsay. He went on:

“But I do not feel it’s appropriate for the ambassador for China to meet on the Commons estate and in our place of work when his country has imposed sanctions against some of our Members. If those sanctions were lifted, then of course this would not be an issue. I am not saying the meeting cannot go ahead. I am just saying it cannot take place here while those sanctions remain in place.”

Some of Beijing’s quislings claim it’s an affront to freedom of expression – ironically, given that Beijing is silencing all dissent. But that’s nonsense. No one is stopping the Chinese ambassador speaking, no one is censoring him and no one is even denying him a platform. The APPG can hold their reception tonight anywhere they like – just not in Parliament, while some of its members are sanctioned by Beijing.

And not only sanctioned – but routinely threatened, intimidated and pressured.

Over the past four years, for example, I know of at least four different MPs who have been directly lobbied by the Chinese embassy to tell me to shut up. On all occasions the MPs concerned, to their credit, politely explained that they were in no position to instruct me, and that even if they tried it would be to no avail, though they did relay the information to me.

Of far greater significance, however, is the fact that the Chinese ambassador overtly attempted to press the British government to silence the Uyghur Tribunal, which concluded on Monday. To actively pressure the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to terminate an entirely independent civil society initiative is a direct threat on our freedoms and an insult to our intelligence.

The tentacles of the Chinese regime have reached too far, too deep, for too long in our political system – and it is so right that the two Speakers have defended Parliament and called time on this criminal gang’s infiltration.

But the other heroes of the story are, if you like, at the other end of the political pole.

The Chinese regime has bought the old Royal Mint, in case you didn’t know, and intends to turn it into its new embassy fortress. Presumably they chose the site for a few reasons – the symbolism of purchasing our former money printer opposite the Tower of London, and the security of hiding away in east London.

What Beijing didn’t realise is that the potential new embassy site lies at the end of Cable Street – where, in 1936, East Enders battled to defend the Jewish community against Oswald Mosley and the fascists. When one considers what Xi’s regime is doing to the Uyghurs, Christians, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners and Hong Kongers, there’s a certain resonance.

That’s why a group of councillors from Tower Hamlets – initiated by the inspiring Liberal Democrat Rabina Khan, alongside the leader of the Conservative group on the council, Peter Golds, and Labour councillors – initiated a motion to name streets around the potential new Chinese embassy as “Uyghur Court”, “Tibet Hill” and “Hong Kong Square”.

The motion passed, and yesterday evening, within an hour of the Chinese ambassador being banned from Parliament, a group of Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers and British supporters gathered outside the Royal Mint to demand that this be implemented. Planning permission for the new embassy construction still has to be approved, so it’s not a done deal.

But if it goes ahead, you can be sure of one thing: in the future, every visitor to the Chinese embassy will have to go through either Uyghur Court, Tibet Hill or Hong Kong Square, a constant reminder of the atrocities committed by the regime represented behind those walls.

So Britain’s fightback against the Chinese regime is underway. These two episodes – within an hour of each other – illustrate that, whether or not our Government is catching up, our elected representatives, civil society and general public are increasingly fed up with Xi’s regime’s appalling repression of peoples within China’s territory and aggression against its critics abroad.

There’s much more to do – especially in instilling some backbone in Whitehall and the City of London. But Parliament and Tower Hamlets are leading the way, and I salute them for that.

John Baron: We need a new defence alliance with other allies as well as the United States

6 Sep

John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.

The precipitous collapse of the post 9/11 Afghan state has taken the world’s chanceries by surprise, and reminded them that no-one can accurately predict the future, just as the Iranian Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union reminded previous generations of this simple fact.

This mistaken intervention sits alongside Iraq, Libya and Syria. The lessons of this defeat though need to be particularly heeded – fine intentions and phrases in the Integrated Review are worthless if the required realpolitik and strategies are sidelined. If not, such an approach will not just prove illusory, but also dangerous.

The fundamental error in Afghanistan was to allow the initial, limited and well-resourced mission to expel al-Qaeda in 2001 to morph into the much wider intervention of nation-building. The Armed Forces deserve our fullest praise. However, as we showed in Northern Ireland, soldiers can only buy time. The politicians may now have accepted their error of trying to reshape the world in our image, but the mistakes regarding the intelligence that accompanied those interventions have yet to be heeded.

The first chapter of the Butler Review into the Iraq War contains an insightful section on the nature and limitations of intelligence and, by extension, of basing a strategy entirely on it. In particular, it highlights the differences between ‘secrets’ – which can be detected – and ‘mysteries’ – which can not. Although we knew the ‘secret’ of how much training, men and equipment the Afghan security forces had, we did not know the ‘mystery’ of how the Afghan troops would react to the advancing Taliban.

Part of the problem is the lack of intelligence on the ground. Technology and satellites, useful though they are, can only tell you so much. In recent decades the dull slog of human reporting has taken a back seat to the technological revolution, in which the US and its allies have created a formidable apparatus to intercept and analyse electronic communications. Though highly effective, it falls down when your adversary eschews modern communications – as indications suggest the Taliban may have done at key moments.

First-in-class technology has to be complemented with better political reporting and intelligence on the ground. In the Foreign Office’s internal review into why it was caught unawares by the Iranian revolution, Nicholas Browne noted that the reporting from those officials who had travelled around Iran in the months and years before the revolution had generally caught the public mood much better than the reporting from Tehran. For these reasons, much of our picture of what is going on in large parts of the world is a heady mixture of incomplete information and informed judgement, both of which can lead us down the wrong alley.

Yet since 9/11, we have placed enormous store on this mixture and have, as a result, often made substantial errors. The worst was the central premise of the Iraq War – weapons of mass destruction were never found. The Libyan intervention was in part informed by confident yet mistaken assessments that Libyans would subsequently embrace multi-party democracy. Optimistic judgements that Afghan society could be reformed wholesale in a matter of years proved well wide of the mark. Ignorance about the composition of the Syrian rebels and then naivety about our ability to arm only the ‘good’ ones contributed eventually to a complete change in approach which involved bombing the rebels.

However, Afghanistan starkly highlights other shortcomings with Britain’s overall strategy. Some of us in Parliament have long argued that the trend of reducing defence spending is severely limiting our ability to protect our interests. Judging from the mood in Parliament, it seemed a shock to many MPs that operating without the Americans was deemed impossible – even securing and running Kabul airport was beyond British capabilities.

Regardless of expensive kit and technology, there remains value in ‘boots on the ground’. No one can predict the exact nature of the next major threat, so sufficient margin is required in both the breadth and composition of our defence forces. Furthermore, a country of little use is little worth listening to. British objections to the American withdrawal timetable might have landed with more weight if we had had more to offer or at stake.

This point is not limited to Britain – all of NATO needs to reappraise its defence capabilities, and increase spending accordingly. Washington will be devoting more time and effort into countering China. Europeans should wise up to this before the Russians truly capitalise on this and start causing more problems. We must not forget the value of deterrence, which costs a tiny amount in money and resources when compared to actually having to fight a war – qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum.

Britain also needs to better defend its key defence industries. We should be extremely wary of allowing companies of great strategic value to be snapped up and hollowed out by foreign buyers. Recent legislation has given Ministers much greater scope to intervene in such scenarios but this will add up to nothing if they are not actually employed. This applies to takeovers from American companies as much as those from other countries.

On a broader level, the liberal democracies must rediscover a sense of seriousness when undertaking grand strategy. What message does our ignoble withdrawal from Afghanistan convey to our allies? The Chinese certainly strategise in terms of many decades, yet our policy can sometimes be influenced by electoral cycles. Worthwhile strategies usually require long-term commitment, as NATO has shown in Germany and the US in South Korea – if we’re not prepared to put this effort in, then we shouldn’t get in at all.

Britain also needs to reassess its relationship with key allies. Kissinger’s remark that the US doesn’t have allies, just interests, is a reminder that it is folly to rely heavily on one ally. While continuing to recognise the many merits of a strong relationship with the US, we need to reassess other allegiances. For example, in tandem with countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and France, we should consider a stronger defence and humanitarian-orientated alliance which has teeth – and which is perhaps centred on one of our two aircraft carriers. This would better guarantee the defence of our common interests.

However, perhaps the most important lessons from Afghanistan relate to leadership and mission. While accepting that war should be legitimate and the measure of last resort, sufficient force should always be deployed when finally despatching troops to theatre. Otherwise, lives will be needlessly lost and the mission compromised. Initially sending a Brigade-minus instead of a Division to Helmand was a derogation of duty.

Furthermore, the soundness of the cause should never be underestimated – did we truly believe we had a right to impose our version of democracy on Afghanistan, especially when the limited 2001 intervention achieved its goal? Joe Biden’s decision regarding this shambolic withdrawal perhaps at least acknowledges the question.

Lettice Bromovsky: Now that the UK has a firm place within the ASEAN bloc, it must stand up to China’s aggressive antics

27 Aug

Lettice Bromovsky is a political commentator and contributor to Young Voices UK.

The UK has become the first country to join the ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations) as a dialogue partner in 25 years, bolstering its post-Brexit vision of “Global Britain” and further integrating itself into one of the fastest growing trade areas in the world.

Nevertheless, entering into this region comes with significant difficulties, and to put it bluntly, the UK will have its work cut out for it. The disparity of the countries within the ASEAN means that consensus agreements are difficult if not impossible to reach, and the encroaching red fog of China into the ASEAN region wields with it the growing concern of Chinese expansionism.

Deepening economic ties with the 10 member state organisation will be hugely beneficial for Britain. Boasting an annual GDP of £2.3 trillion, the ASEAN is now four and a half times larger than it was in 2000. Total trade between the UK and the 10 member nations of the ASEAN amounted to $45.5 billion at the end of Q3 in 2020.

Although there are substantial economic benefits for the UK joining, the region is plagued with an array of differing political systems and vast economic disparities. For example, Brunei and Cambodia are considered authoritarian regimes, whereas the Philippines and Thailand are deemed democracies. And while Singapore maintains a high median annual income of $59,590 in 2021, Laos’ median income remains low at $2570.

Unsurprisingly this often makes it difficult for the organisation to reach unanimous agreements. Indeed, a regular criticism of the ASEAN is its poor consensus-driven decision making approach. One particularly out-dated piece of legislation is the principle of non-interference, which prevents member-states from intervening in each other’s domestic affairs.

During the Myanmar Coup in February 2021 the shortcomings of this principle became obvious. When the UN tried to vote on an arms embargo to condone Myanmar for their clear violation of human rights, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei abstained. This principle is warping the moral fabric of countries, over fears that it could lead to greater economic instability.

As a dialogue member the UK now has access to the high-level ASEAN summits and other top-level discussions. During these discussions, Britain can encourage deeper reform and further political stability.

Another hurdle for Britain in the region is the ever growing dominance of Chinese influence. In 2010 at the ASEAN Regional Forum, China’s then foreign minister remarked “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact”. This brasen comment perfectly portrays China’s ingrained belief that small countries must adhere to the will of larger ones.

China has used the looming threat of sanctions or reduced Chinese investment as a way to control the ASEAN members and to further its own expansionist policy into the South China Sea, an essential trade route for all Asian economies.

Chinese abuse of power is not uncommon to hear or read about in the media. In fact, its growing regularity should be of great concern to western democracies. In 2012, the Philippines challenged China on its entitlements in the South China Sea. The dispute was brought before the international tribunal in the Hague. The Philippines won the case, but China refused to accept the ruling. Five years on, China still stands vehemently opposed to this ruling and has only asserted itself more aggressively in the region.

China has sunk Vietnamese fishing boats that were in contested waters between the two countries. It has occupied an exclusive economic zone owned mutually by the Philippines and Vietnam, with around 220 Chinese militia vessels. In 2020, a Chinese ship harassed Malaysian and Vietnamese gas exploits in their own economic zones. This is all on top of increasing military and naval exercises in the South China Sea as a flashy display of strength.

China’s inability to engage on a geopolitical level almost reached breaking point in recent foreign affairs. Last month a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson met with the Taliban, not only recognising the violent and oppressive organisation, but going one step further to reiterate that they were ‘ready for friendly relations’.

Even today the Chinese embassy is one of the very few that remains operational after the fall of Kabul this week. At first glance this could be interpreted as China losing allies and therefore reaching for those equally desperate, but the reality is China is only interested in its own economic stability. If the disruption in Afghanistan manages to overflow into Pakistan or Central Asia, then China’s economic interests and supply chains will be most affected.

Britain cannot allow this blatant abuse of economic power and bullying to continue. China’s strength and confidence to punish countries is growing, it was only last year after Australia called for an inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak, that China both verbally threatened, stating that Australia was treading a “dangerous path” and then economically punished the country by imposing tariffs of 80 per cent of Australian barley and completely banning beef from Australia’s four biggest abattoirs.

The only way we will be able to combat this kind of playground politics is from a unified front. Britain needs to encourage less economic reliance on China in the region. This can be done by solidifying free trade agreements with the countries in the ASEAN. The UK has already successfully achieved this with Singapore and Vietnam, but it is imperative that we begin to forge new ones with the remaining eight members.

A diversification of supply chains will also weaken China’s hold on the region as with greater economic diversification it will be increasingly hard for China to economically coerce the ASEAN.

If, or more likely when, China next attempts to use its size and might to further its own foreign policy, an unified process of imposing offsetting measures, such as tariffs will be essential in combating this type of bullying.

Chinese aggression cannot and should not be tolerated. A unified approach against this authoritarian power is the only way to combat Chinese influence and expansion. Now that the UK has asserted its place in the region, it must begin work encouraging the tenets of a free and democratic society.

David Lidington: There’s no alternative to our American alliance. But we also need a new strategic relationship with our European allies.

27 Aug

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

This week at Kabul airport we have seen human nature both at its most heroic, in the risks taken by our servicemen and women to help thousands of Afghans fleeing persecution, and at its most depraved, in the merciless slaughter of innocents by suicide bombers.

Those appalling scenes ram home the cruel truth that we, the West, have suffered a major defeat. The return of the Taliban is a humiliation for the United States and its NATO allies, including our own country. Jihadist networks, not only Isis-K but their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East and in our own cities will take fresh heart. Russia, China and Iran will interpret the debacle in Kabul as further evidence of Western decadence and decline and see opportunities to expand their influence in the world.

Unsurprisingly, defeat in Afghanistan has sent a wave of shock and anger through the British political and media worlds. In particular, recriminations over Joe Biden’s decision to act unilaterally and his scant consultation with coalition allies have gone way beyond the normal language of diplomatic relations. One or two Ministers, who under the cloak of anonymity have bandied around not just vituperative language about the United States but personal insults at Biden, need to be reminded that the burdens of high office include sometimes having to bite your tongue when matters involving the national interest are at stake.

While it is right that this strategic reverse should prompt a hard look at its lessons for our foreign and security policy, it would be a mistake to think that every assumption about the UK’s place in the world has been overthrown.

The fundamental conclusions of the Government’s Integrated Review seem to me still to hold good. Russia is a potent threat to the security of this country and the continent of which we are part. China is both a strategic rival to the West and in some respects an unavoidable partner. Our military strength and our resilience to security threats depends on us being able to renew our capacity for technological innovation. The United Kingdom is a European power with a global outlook and global interests. The alliance with the United States is essential to our own national security.

Policy should include a measured tilt to the Indo-Pacific, doing more with countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea, while continuing to direct the great majority of our security resources and attention to the Euro-Atlantic, working with our allies in Europe and North America. Soft and hard power complement one another and both are important in defending and advancing our interests.

The missing element is a clear strategic plan to act on those conclusions. In this short space, I want to make just two points.

First, that plan should start with a clear-eyed view of our relationship with the United States.

Walk down Bond Street in the West End and you come across a remarkable pair of statues: Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt sitting on a wooden bench. The two men are presented as if in the middle of a relaxed, jovial conversation, the sculptor’s art conveying an impression of mutual trust, friendship and goodwill. The work is entitled “Allies”.

Far too often, British politicians and journalists have fallen for the beguiling romance that this work of art represents, and overlooked the reality that there have been freqtuent clashes of interest and opinion. FDR drove a hard bargain over lend-lease. Truman refused to do Attlee any favours over Britain’s war debts. Eisenhower humiliated Britain and France over Suez. Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam. Ronald Reagan sent US forces into Grenada without even telling Margaret Thatcher.

What President Biden’s recent decisions have shown is that “America First” has outlived Donald Trump. It’s not isolationism, but rather a rigorous and ruthless focus on what the White House considers to be the key national interests of the United States and a readiness to dispense with other commitments. We’ve seen it in the shift of American priorities towards the Indo-Pacific under both Democrat and Republican presidents, when Barack Obama insisted that France and the UK take political responsibility for the action in Libya in 2011 and now in Kandahar and Kabul.

The lesson for policymakers in London is not that we should look for an alternative to the US alliance. There isn’t one. No other country or grouping in the democratic world has the concentration of economic and military power of Washington. But Britain, like the rest of Europe, is going to have to work harder to prove to US politicians and the voters they represent that they should see the security of our region as part of the essential national interest of the American people.

Britain’s military and security relationships with the US functioned even during the worst turbulence of the Trump years. The Americans recognise that the UK brings things to the table that they value: our intelligence agencies, special forces, nuclear submarines and not just armed forces but a willingness to deploy them. We need to keep those relationships in the best possible state of repair and at the same time redouble diplomatic efforts to show how important American interests depend on the security of Europe.

Second, we need to establish a new strategic partnership with our European neighbours. We can and should work with like-minded nations around the world, but that should be additional to and not a substitute for an effective alliance with the democracies next door. This is important for two reasons.

The first is that it is greater capability and a greater willingness to act on the part of the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance that could give us the choice of taking an initiative when the United States does not want to be involved. And second, Washington not only wants its European allies to spend more on defence and security, but for them to show greater leadership in parts of the world: Africa, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, which America now treats as at most secondary to its strategic rivalry with China.

A lot can be done through NATO structures like the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea, and through bilateral partnerships like the E3 grouping of France, Germany and the UK. Britain is party too to the European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries.

But as governments in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere keep saying, there also needs to be a new, constructive strategic relationship between the UK and the European Union. In part, that’s because even the big member states think and work in the EU context, seeking to influence and being influenced by EU discussions on foreign and security policy, and also because many of the key levers of soft power: development aid, state capacity building, military and police training, peacekeeping missions lie at EU level.

To make a reality of the slogan “Global Britain” requires us to accept that we need to work with allies, and that we need strong, strategic relationships on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ben Roback: Biden’s Afghan pull-out represents the rash decision making we had expected from Trump

25 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Who has failed the people of Afghanistan more spectacular, the United States or the G7? Both have made a compelling case of late.

When the G7 nations met in June under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, the group issued a customary Communiqué. The urgent priorities were clear and indeed perfectly logical – the Covid recovery, vaccinations, and “building back better”.

The middle priorities of the lengthy to do list were at times perplexing. Cyber space and outer space, a “values-driven digital ecosystem for the common good that enhances prosperity in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, transparent and human-centric”, and open societies.

Eventually, at point 57, the G7 remembered Afghanistan:

“We call on all Afghan parties to reduce violence and agree on steps that enable the successful implementation of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and to engage fully with the peace process. In Afghanistan, a sustainable, inclusive political settlement is the only way to achieve a just and durable peace that benefits all Afghans. We are determined to maintain our support for the Afghan government to address the country’s urgent security and humanitarian needs, and to help the people of Afghanistan, including women, young people and minority groups, as they seek to preserve hard-won rights and freedoms.”

With the benefit of political hindsight, was the Communiqué a clear sign that, just 10 weeks ago, the international community had such a miserly grasp of what was about to unfold despite the known deadline imposed by the United States?

Or being critical and almost certainly more honest, did it prove that the G7 countries were too caught up with their own agendas and so forgot about a weak, propped up government that was inevitably going to fall the moment the US initiated its withdrawal?

The chaotic scenes that have followed are a demonstrable failure of diplomacy and military intervention. In the first instance, it is the Afghan people and those who served in uniform and alongside them who will suffer the most.

The case for the White House: Putting an end to the ‘forever war’

There is no equivocation or discussion whatsoever about President Biden’s motivation for withdrawal. He wants to pull out American boots on the ground in advance of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

He does not want to become the fourth president to phone the grieving parent of a soldier lost in Kabul, Kunduz or Kandahar. In that respect, he aims to “succeed where others have failed” given President Bush started the Afghan war and it dogged the Obama and Trump administrations subsequently.

The human and financial costs illustrate the domestic rationale. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that since 9/11, 7,057 US service members have been killed in war operations, whilst 30,1777 US service members have committed suicide.

The cost of caring for post-9/11 American war veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion by 2050. The only way to stop that tide of misery, the White House argues, is to get out of Afghanistan. But at what cost to Afghans and the United States’ reputation abroad?

The White House might also argue that, whilst the eyes of the world are on the Middle East, the Vice President is in the Far East. Kamala Harris completed a three-day trip to Singapore where she fired warning shots about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Did anyone notice? The international community remains entirely focused on the more pressing problems in Afghanistan. At home, Parliament was recalled from its summer recess to discuss saving lives, not the Spratley Islands.

The case against the White House: Biden out-Trumps Trump and hangs the world out to dry

Could we have expected such a gargantuan gaffe from President Biden? After all, this was supposed to be the president who returned America to a state of relative normalcy after four years of Trumpian volatility in the pursuit of “America First”. On the world stage, Biden’s message to historic allies has been clear: “America is back”. Is it?

Biden cannot reasonably claim a lack of foreign policy experience. 36 years in the Senate having been elected before his 30th birthday. 12 years as Ranking Member or Chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Eight years as Vice President, in which his White House bio now even boasts that “Biden played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy and describes how he was point person for US diplomacy throughout the Western Hemisphere and led the effort to bring 150,000 troops home from Iraq.

The Afghan pull-out represents the kind of rash decision making devoid of any consultation with military allies that we had perhaps expected from President Trump. But for all of Trump’s bluster and wildly unpredictable rhetoric, he did not deliver the hammer blow to US foreign policy that many had expected.

It had started to look like death by a thousand paper cuts, but the capacity to do further incremental damage was limited by being a one-term president.

It is Biden, not Trump, who has shocked US allies. “Sleepy Joe” has sleep-walked the United States into its biggest foreign policy debacle for a generation.

From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”

Where does this leave Joe Biden and his administration’s relationship with the very same allies it sought to reassure after the Trump presidency? Johnson and Emanuel Macron led the call for President Biden to extend his self-imposed deadline of August 31 for the complete and total withdrawal of US forces.

At present, that has fallen on deaf ears trained solely on a domestic audience. News outlets report the president will not extend the deadline, agreeing with the Pentagon’s assessment. An imminent detailed report by Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State. could yet reshape the decision.

The president has acknowledged that a completed withdrawal by the end of the month will be dependent upon the Taliban’s continued cooperation. The very same terror force the US entered Afghanistan to drive out is now needed to get Americans out of the country.

The administration has hinted at some flexibility. But each time Biden has spoken at the presidential podium since the fall of Kabul, he has doubled down on the decision with even greater tenacity. To alter course now would be political humiliation. From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”.

Perhaps the most striking remark the president has made since the Taliban takeover was when he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building”. Really? Twenty years training and serving alongside the Afghan military. Two decades propping up a western-style government.

It begs the question: on what basis will the US intervene abroad now, if not to nationbuild? Just under 30,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea, as the threat of war on the Korean peninsula looms perpetually.

But there is no nation building to be done in Seoul; will those troops be brough home next? Over 35,000 US troops are stationed in Germany; Chancellor Merkel needs no help maintaining her own democracy.

The Biden administration has rolled the international dice to take a domestic political gamble

The President, Defence Secretary, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser all clearly believe that most Americans do not care about the fate of Afghanistan or its people. According to YouGov America, at any one time only 0.5 per cent of Americans have ever though that the war in Afghanistan is a top issue facing the country.

They care more about a seemingly endless war in which too much American blood has been spilled. That is understandable with a domestic hat on, but deeply depressing when thinking globally.

Maybe Biden will be proven right. But at what expense? The fall of a nation into the hands of terrorists. It would be the most pyrrhic of all political victories.

America 1) Bim Afolami: Yes, the United States is withdrawing from its role abroad. So we need to reinvigorate our alliances.

23 Aug

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

Does “The West” mean anything any longer? Over the past week, we have watched the 20 year old US-led invasion of Afghanistan come to an inglorious end, with the final exit of US military forces in a way that was visually reminiscent of the American exit from Vietnam in 1975.

This has not just been an American story. Four hundred and fifty-seven British troops lost their lives there, as did over 600 soldiers from other allied countries. As a result of this shared investment in trying to save Afghanistan from the Taliban, the departure from Afghanistan has been met with much hand wringing and emotion in the UK and much of Europe, with much criticism of Joe Biden for both the fact and manner of withdrawal.

At the time of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, we knew what “The West” was. Broadly speaking, it was a collection of like-minded, democratic countries – a long term partnership between the US and Western Europe which had eventually won the Cold War.

NATO was its core infrastructure, largely funded and buttressed by the America, supplemented by the European Union and different bilateral partnerships. The US acted as a superpower and often acted selfishly in its own interests (lest we fool ourselves otherwise), but it retained a sense that the unity, purpose, and values of the West meant something, and that it was America’s responsibility to lead it. Isolationism was still a dirty word.

Henry Kissinger wrote: “torn between nostalgia for a pristine past and yearning for a perfect future, American thought has oscillated between isolationism and commitment”. Isolationism has always been a recurring force in US foreign policy. In his famous Farewell Address, George Washington warned against what he called “entanglements” and against permanent foreign alliances, and regarded Europe as having “a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relationship. Our detached and distant situation invited and enables us to pursue a different course”.

America was extremely reluctant to enter both world wars, and were late in doing so. After 1945, the Cold War saw a renewed American commitment to engagement on a global scale, but after the fall of the USSR and the resultant ideological “End of History” of the early 1990s, the oscillation that Kissinger talked about remained through the controversies of Bosnia, Afghanistan and then Iraq.

Anyone watching President Biden’s speech last week would have noticed that the Trump “America First” stance is alive and well. If this stance is the new normal for the US, at least for the foreseeable future, what does this mean for Britain? It appears to me that there are three potential strategic futures for the UK.

One option is for us to shrug our shoulders and accept the current situation as the new reality. The West’s period of dominance cannot last for ever. China is on the rise, the US is in decline, and therefore we – as part of the old “West” – will decline along with it. We should focus on our domestic problems, and be highly pragmatic with our international relationships to keep us out of entanglements as much as possible, ignoring much of the value-driven approach that we have championed over the past generation.

The second option is for us to try and reinvigorate our existing alliances and institutions, and somehow find new strength, unity and purpose to tackle the pressing challenges we face. Unless faced with a changed approach from Washington, this will mean a significant investment in military and diplomatic power from European powers.

To achieve this would require much better relations with them, and improving our defence and foreign policy cooperation. Do they really want to partner with us fully with Brexit, still an open wound for them? Is Europe really willing to improve its NATO contributions, and explain to its electorates that there is the need for less butter and a more guns?

The third option is perhaps the most radical: a fusion between these two. We need to breathe fresh life into the phrase “Global Britain” and rethink our foreign policy not in the world we would like, but in the world we actually live in. America is no longer likely to act as the “leader of the free world”, in the short to medium term. The Chinese are increasingly willing to flex their muscles in foreign affairs (only hours after the Taliban overran Kabul, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said Beijing was ready for “friendly cooperation with Afghanistan”), and India is not far behind.

Yet in the UK our values matter to us, and our partnerships with the US and Europe are not just historical: they are based on fundamentals of our culture and shared understandings in the modern day.

I believe that the UK can help play a truly global role by seeking a more independent route in foreign affairs, by leveraging our strong relationships all over the world and our soft power. We should act as a global convenor – a trusted and safe network hub in which all the major powers wish to operate, and bring our positive influence to bear in this way.

This could be in areas as diverse as international finance (e.g. rules on international tax), diplomacy (e.g. reforming the UN and WTO), humanitarian assistance (i.e: ensuring more vaccines are sent to the developing world and tackling climate change). Not to act as a bridge between the US and EU, but to continually act as several bridges between many more powers – the US, EU, China and the Commonwealth.

Thereby, we could play a central role in reshaping the global institutional framework of tomorrow – one in which China, India, and many in the developing world feel that their status is more fairly represented. A retreat from a unipolar world into a multipolar world does not necessarily mean chaos if we have the institutions to manage that new reality.

Whatever one’s view of the right path forward, it is my strong belief that in Britain we need to shift gears. We need to accept that American power is waning, and they are no longer interested in using its blood and treasure in faraway countries of which they know little. We can either just accept this reality and continue pretending that the West’s dysfunctional institutions and military weakness doesn’t matter, or we can reinvigorate our alliances, reshape the international system, and work much more closely with the new ascending powers to try and adapt to the new multipolar reality.

America 2) Michael Fabricant: No, the United States isn’t withdrawing from its role abroad. We’ve been here before and it will be back.

23 Aug

Michael Fabricant is MP for Lichfield.

It’s fashionable right now to write off Pax Americana and the influence of the West.  Comparisons have been drawn with the decline of Britain in those dark years following World War Two. These point to impotence abroad and division at home.

The commentariat is wrong. Some members of it are wishful thinking. America remains deceptively strong, and the foundations of its global dominance unshaken.

Of course, it would be absurd to deny the seriousness of the current moment. Joe Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan represents America’s most humiliating moment on the world stage since the 1979-81 Iran Hostage Crisis.

However, what we are living through right now is not the twilight of American hegemony, but simply the nadir of a regular cycle of American self-doubt and renewal.

Our cousins across the Atlantic have been here before. During the 1970s, America faced a similar period of malaise and weakness. The decade that saw the Fall of Saigon is ubiquitous with political instability, rising crime, a sluggish economy and intergenerational strife. Then as now, pessimistic predictions abounded about the health of the nation and its place in the wider world. Enter Ronald Reagan, George H.W Bush and resounding victory in the Cold War.

Even if there is no Reagan-esque figure waiting in the wings to take over from the Jimmy Carter-like President Biden, reports of America’s death are premature. Proponents of American decline have yet to provide an answer to the following conundrum: who can match, let alone surpass the United States?

In the 1970s, it was supposed to be Japan, now the commentariat prophesy that it’s China’s turn.  (Russia doesn’t get a look in. Its economy is weak with a GDP only just over a half of that of the UK.)  But while the Chinese economy is an undoubted juggernaut, its GDP is just two-thirds of that of the United States, and it has juddered to a crawl.

And while our undignified retreat from Afghanistan has posed questions over the West’s determination to fight future wars and defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression, China’s military spend at over $200 billion is dwarfed by the US, which stands at around $715 billion.

That is reflected in the available hardware of war.  While the US currently has 20 aircraft carriers currently in service, with a further three in reserve and three under construction, China has only three, with another three on the way. This disparity is reflected in other areas too, from fighter jets to nuclear weapons. The only arena where China has a definitive edge is in terms of total military personnel, but infantry-based battles will not win wars.

With this yawning gap in military capability which already exists between the two countries, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that China cannot realistically hope to catch up in the foreseeable future.

Demographically, China faces a ticking time bomb of stagnant birth rates and an aging population, with the median age in China projected to far surpass the US in the coming decades. Like Russia, it is bordered by large states that are friendly to the US, and China’s actions in Hong Kong and against the Uighurs have only served to push developing powers such as India and Vietnam further into the arms of Uncle Sam.

And this is without even mentioning the West’s cultural dominance, which is stronger than ever. If China is second to the US in economic and military might, in cultural terms it would probably struggle to crack the top ten. The entrenchment of English as the world’s lingua franca further guarantees American cultural hegemony.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students flock to the US and Britain every year to study at our world class universities, with very little movement going the other way.

And while many see the current social conflicts in the US as evidence of weakness, it’s actually a strength, a sign of a society that is constantly striving to better itself one way or another. It is this introspection which wards off complacency. After all, America is an empire of immigrants, constantly renewing and rejuvenating the nation, in stark contrast to the rigidity of China

There is no “Chinese Dream”, no lofty ideals for its people to aspire to, merely communist dogma and imposed cultural homogeneity. What many see in the West as order and self-assurance is simply a charade; a result of China’s closed society. We can only see what the Chinese Communist Party want us to see.

While the horrific scenes of desperation at Kabul airport shames the US, they are also a reminder of something else: for all America’s warts and problems, people still risk their lives to try their hand at the American Dream.

That – more than anything else – is why American dominance will continue long into the future. And, inevitably, why this debate will crop up again.

Sarah Ingham: The success of Taliban 2.0 has left Britain, and its semi-detached MPs, bereft of answers

20 Aug

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Reviewing Barack Obama’s first term in office, Joe Biden, then Vice President, provided a pithy summary in 2012.

Almost a decade after al-Qaeda’s world-changing 9/11 attack on America, in May 2011 US Special Forces finally got their man. He had been hiding out in Abbottabad, which could be twinned with Aldershot, on the other side of Afghanistan’s often conveniently porous border with Pakistan.

Up there with other great political comebacks are now the Taliban. Ten years after the unlamented passing of bin Laden, history’s most troublesome paying guest, 20 years after being ousted by NATO forces and the local Northern Alliance, the regime is now in power. Or, as the lawyer for ISIS-groupie Shamima Begum tweeted to accompany the image of gun-carrying fighters with their feet under the Presidential desk in Kabul, “The boys are back in town”.

The success of Taliban 2.0 in the past two weeks has made us question the worth of Britain’s mission in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Or should that be missions?

In his memoirs Tony Blair reflects on his choices after the first Taliban regime was overthrown: “Like it or not, from then on, we were in the business of nation-building.” A Journey was published in 2010 with the benefit of hindsight. Britain joined American military action in Afghanistan in late 2001 under our Article 5 NATO treaty obligations. Back then, there was no plan to set up a liberal democracy or to educate girls.

Keen to keep busy after the end of the Cold War – “Go out of area or go out of business” – in June 2004 NATO members committed to an expanded operation in Afghanistan. Like a bust Monopoly player’s properties, the country’s provinces were divvied up. Outlining the scope of the British military mission in Helmand, in January 2006, John Reid, the Defence Secretary, talked the talk about “a fully integrated package addressing governance, security and political and social change” and “finding real alternatives to the harvesting of opium”. He added “waging war is not our aim”.

With British forces under heavy fire from the Taliban almost as soon as their boots were on the ground, the current doubts about the quality of Afghan-related intelligence are hardly new. After all, Secretary Reid stated “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot”.

Stabilisation? Protecting reconstruction? Nation-building? Counter-terrorism? Counter-insurgency? Counter-poppy? Combat? With the Blair-Brown government unsure of its objective in Afghanistan, it is unsurprising the public was baffled about the British role. In October 2006, 64 per cent reported there was no clear strategy. Three years later, 42 per cent did not understand the purpose of the British mission and more than 60 per cent believed the war was unwinnable and all troops should be withdrawn.

Conversely, Service personnel had never been held in higher esteem, approval ratings which continue today. Soldiers’ service and sacrifice – including the preparedness to make the ultimate sacrifice – became especially apparent on the final melancholy journeys through Wootton Bassett. The changes in Afghanistan in the last 20 years have come about not least because of the professionalism and commitment of Britain’s Servicemen and women.

Combat operations ended in 2015. To paraphrase Keir Starmer, in the context of Afghanistan most of us in Britain seem to have been on the beach ever since. How many were aware of Operation Toral, the UK’s mission to train local Afghan Forces, not least at Sandhurst-in-the-Sand? Who raised concerns about the Trump-Taliban deal in Doha?

MPs’ semi-detached attitude towards Afghanistan was underlined by the almost complete absence of statesmanship in Wednesday’s Emergency Debate. Of course, given that most of our representatives have not actually bothered to show up for work for 15 months, they are out of practice, but that is no excuse for sanctimony at levels rivalling the peaks of the Hindu Kush. Apart from Tom Tugendhat, Dan Jarvis and a handful of others, most MPs should have stayed at home.

Regime change, which many MPs were in favour of in Iraq, usually involves chaos, bloodshed and a humanitarian crisis. Has the Stop the War movement become Continue the Military Intervention?

Perhaps Washington’s critics should tell us just how much they would like to take from the NHS budget to pay for an increase in defence to cover a unilateral British mission to Afghanistan. For the past half century this country has chosen welfare over warfare, sheltering under an American defence umbrella. US taxpayers have spent $2 trillion; more than 20,000 US Service personnel have been injured and 2,400 killed. With so much American blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan, evincing some gratitude toward our chief NATO ally would have been fitting.

What of the bigger strategic picture? The silence from MPs on this was deafening. The Prime Minister was correct to point out that deploying tens of thousands of British troops to fight the Taliban is not an option.

In the rush to judgment over the past week, few have stopped to ask why the Taliban could seize power so easily. So far, the handover has been comparatively orderly. Just as London is not Britain, cosmopolitan Kabul might not be Afghanistan.

And who are the Taliban 2.0? How do they fit into this tribal multi-ethnic country, where mobile phone ownership has gone from about 30,000 to 22.5 million in the past 20 years. Supposing they are less medieval executioners-in-football-stadia and more 21st century smartphone-savvy operators, mindful of optics seen globally and instantly?

If Britain has a problem doing business with an Islamic regime with dubious attitudes towards women and civil rights, there goes most of the Middle East. As yet there are no evacuation helicopters hovering over the embassies of China and Russia in Kabul: perhaps staff are too busy drawing up deals over mineral rights and infrastructure.

This week President Biden declared that “we” could not provide “them” with the will to fight. A young British Army officer might well have disagreed. The Malakand Field Force describes a short military campaign in 1897 in a tribal area near the Durand Line, the newly-drawn border between British India and Afghanistan, specifically designed to protect Britain’s imperial interests.

The author, Second Lieutenant Winston Churchill, admired the enemy Pashtu tribesmen: “To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer… Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”