Geopolitics and the China Question

Discussion of Chinese intentions inevitably draws attention to the Taiwan issue and the pronounced buildup of naval weaponry in recent years, with each year bringing fresh confirmation of China’s ability to leapfrog existing assessments of the size of its navy. Chinese force structure and individual weapons classes are clearly designed to match American warships and raise interest in China’s ability to sustain distant interest by sea, most obviously in the Indian Ocean but also wherever Chinese geopolitical concerns may be favoured by naval power-projection. Areas where China has maritime interests include not only the West and South-West Pacific, where it has been actively projecting power alliance partnerships, but also further afield. So the notion that China might automatically ‘limit’ itself to dominating a ‘near China’ of the East and South China Seas is implausible. Even were that to be the goal, the need to prevent external intervention in that dominance, intervention most obviously by the American and Japanese navies but also by Australia, would require a greater range of naval activity in terms of ‘access denial.’ It was that principle that led the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941; modern counterparts would be seeking to thwart the use of Guam and to block choke- points of naval access.

This approach presupposes that the Chinese wish for war, which is highly unlikely; but any policy inherently requires planning for the possibility of conflict and that is true for the Chinese as well as for their possible opponents. Of course that brings with it the danger that preparing for conflict might actually help precipitate it. In terms of planning, there are a host of imponderables but this is scarcely new. It was true of the two world wars as the relevant weapons systems had not been tested hitherto. That puts a premium on wargaming and that, eased by computer simulation, has been underway for years.

Geopolitical speculation is also pertinent. Geopolitics nicely demonstrates the conceit that
social sciences are scientific if they are to be understood in terms of an ideology of empirically-based rational argument. Instead geopolitics, intensely political, owes much to the rhetorical use of argument, not least when concepts and terms such as geographical determinism, national interest, and strategic culture are sprayed around as if they were not each inherently subject to debate. And what I or others can offer is no different, but should be understood as intended as a spur to thought, including crucially disagreement. Only a fool believes that their work is somehow definitive.

Much of the discussion of the present proclaims abrupt changes, whether about Ukraine,
Taiwan or American politics. In practical terms of course, China has become more of an issue because of a combination of longer-term trends, notably economic growth, but also its move away from isolation in the early 1970s. The Sino-American axis saw each participant profit from the weakness to derive strategic benefit, both in terms of their adversarial relations with the Soviet Union and for each in navigating out of difficult encumbrances of the 1960s: the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War.

Western strategic mastery in part subsequently rested on Sino-Soviet division, so that for the West the key strategic disaster of the early 2000s was not al-Qaeda but the pace of Sino-Russian reconciliation. During the 2000s, the American navy both planned for confrontation with China and advocated what in effect was an alternative strategic prioritisation and foreign policy. While the American government, army, air force and marines were focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, the navy regarded this as at best a second-order priority (a view shared by Chinese policymakers), and, instead, urged the need to focus on the waters off East Asia. That underlay Obama’s ‘Pivot toward Asia’: as in so much else and to a degree that neither man wishes to acknowledge, there is continuity between Obama and Trump, as there would have been between McCain/Romney and Hilary Clinton. That, however, is not to underplay marked differences in tone between leading American figures, that may become more apparent as the 2024 presidential campaign gathers pace.

In part, this situation poses a major problem for Britain. For political ‘show’ reasons, we now see a deployment of naval assets off East Asia, but Britain can in practice contribute relatively little there, not least as America’s crucial regional partners are Japan, followed by Australia. Instead, the value of ‘Europe,’ that most curious, indeed in many respects implausible of military units, is in its approach to the wider geopolitical challenge posed by China.

For any military focus on China is challenged by the need also to address Russian prospects and vice-versa. That also explains the issue of Britain’s role, and, indeed, that of ‘Europe’ as a whole. Despite the claims of some British navalists, the major value of Britain in any confrontation with China or deterrence towards it is not going to be provided by the presence of a British carrier in the South China Sea. Indeed, as one former First Sea Lord put it to me, it would be ‘every submariner’s dream’ to sink that carrier, which would be highly vulnerable, not least in the South China Sea. There are uneasy parallels there with the disastrous vulnerability of the coalition navy to Japanese attack in the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942.

The value of Britain instead is to be part of the deterrence to Russia which poses a challenge to Atlantic security. Thus, there is a new version of the military challenge of the Cold War. This new challenge is possibly better countered at sea than by an attempt to force an equation of power on China based on what Britain (and the United States) have in the form of a count of carriers.

Of course, a full-spectrum Chinese challenge includes hybrid warfare in its various forms, including cyber-warfare, the encouragement of dissidence, and a range of unconventional and/or irregular forms of conflict. The nature of the current world economic crisis will help China far more than any individual weapons programme. The increase in unemployment will be only one of the more obvious crises of hope; this offers much to China, a power with a range of strategic means. Thus, for China many opportunities are in prospect.

The Western strategy, transposed from that of the 1950s, was containment, but the present situation offers China the possibility of leapfrogging containment, rather as the Soviet Union was to do with Egypt, Cuba, Ethiopia et al. This forces Western powers to consider the possibility of China exploiting developments that might not otherwise seem to be anything to do with that country.

In these circumstances, the prime strategic deterrent to China before the Russian invasion of Ukraine would have been better relations between the West and Russia, but that prospect has been ended by the invasion of Ukraine and was anyway unlikely to succeed given the shared interests of China and Russia in revisionism. If, at the same time, there is an uneasiness in their relationship, a Trump victory in America is more likely to bring volatility to the fore.

The alternative idea of a reliance alone on the strengthening of the West underrates the tensions within the West, and indeed within individual countries. Consistency in alliance is scarcely an easy remedy given the divisions within Europe and the extent to which American policy is so obviously dependent on electoral results. The divisions within Europe, as well as issue of military strength and geopolitics, are such that the burden of defence against China is likely to depend on America’s existing Pacific system. Its resilience in the face of China’s ambitions is uncertain.

So far we have essentially treated states as abstractions, which is an abiding flaw of much geopolitical work, as well as the makings of so much political rhetoric. However, the question of ‘national’ moves so often is a product of the unpredictability of partisan alignments, political moves, and individual perception. And so at present. Britain’s China policy is in part a product of debates within the government, dissension within the Conservative Party (which has helped weaponise the issue politically), and acute service rivalries. Other states are no different and only a fool would consider China a monolith. The need for strategic awareness is abundantly clear, but alas it is all-too easy to throw complexity aside for the sake of the clarity of polemic.

Jeremy Black

A Senior Research Fellow of the British Foreign Policy Group, Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Exeter. His books include Geopolitics, Military Strategy, War and Technology and Air Power: A Global History.