Wang Yi and Mohammad Javad Zarif, 2021 Wang Yi and Mohammad Javad Zarif, 2021. Photo: Fars Media Corporation / CC BY 4.0

Dangerous Western belligerence towards China is risking war in the Pacific, with Britain following the US lead, argues Terina Hine

As the US, Britain and Australia met in San Diego to discuss nuclear subs in the Pacific, further ratcheting up the possibility of war with China, China was calming waters in the Middle East by successfully negotiating a deal between bitter regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Aukus, the new three-way defence pact that brings Australia into the nuclear club with Britain and America, has helped extend America’s reach into the Pacific region, taking the UK along for a dangerous and expensive ride. In advance of his trip to California, Sunak pledged to ‘fortify’ Britain against Russia and China, announcing a £5bn boost to military spending; in Wednesday’s budget the chancellor revealed a total increase of £11bn to the UK’s defence budget.

Already the highest defence spender in Europe, Britain’s defence budget is set to reach 2.25% of GDP by 2025, exceeding the Nato target of 2%. A substantial proportion of this spending is to be directed at defending the UK from the Chinese ‘challenge’ with a large chunk going on nuclear subs. Addressing this ‘challenge’ with a show of military might is foolishly dangerous and could end up with the US and Nato engaging in war on two fronts.

China’s global diplomacy

In contrast, China has spent much of the last few months presenting itself as a benign global power. Most Western commentators have dismissed China’s ability to become a global political force to rival the US. Until now, competition from China has been as an economic power, but the surprise agreement brokered by the Chinese between Saudi Arabia and Iran, announced on 10 March, showed China should be taken seriously on the international political stage.

The agreement allows for the resumption of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh after a seven-year hiatus and, assuming it plays out as described in the Iran-Saudi joint statement, should lead to a major reduction in tensions in the region, with positive ramifications for the wars in both Yemen and Syria. It has been described by commentators as a ‘diplomatic coup’. The groundwork for the agreement was laid in Beijing at a meeting between the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi and President Xi in February, which followed Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia at the end of 2022.

Tensions between the two regional powers were at a height only last year when Tehran accused the Saudis of funding and inciting unrest in Iran. At the time, Western governments were concerned about a possible military attack on Saudi Arabia by Iran.

Restoring diplomatic relations between the Saudis and Iranians is an important, personal victory for Xi and represents a direct challenge to US supremacy in the Middle East. On the back of this success, President Xi Jinping announced China would play a bigger role in managing global affairs, to promote ‘stability and add positive energy to world peace’. A recent Chinese foreign-policy paper on the war in Ukraine similarly attempted to place Xi’s brokerage centre stage. Again Western commentators were highly sceptical of Beijing’s peace-making abilities.

President Xi is visiting Russia today and it is reported that the visit will be followed by a direct conversation between Xi and Ukrainian president Zelensky. China’s foreign minister spoke by telephone with his Ukrainian counterpart a few days ago preparing the ground. If talks between Xi and Zelensky do go ahead, it could mark a significant step towards Beijing adopting a role as peacemaker in Ukraine. Not that this would alter the drive towards war in the Pacific.

Western arms race

Undeniably, relations between the US and China are at an all-time low. The US has pushed export controls and sanctions against Chinese industry, has built military bases encircling China, and is providing stronger support for Taiwan, appearing to abandon its doctrine of strategic ambiguity over the disputed territory. In recent weeks, the talk in the US has moved from war with China being a probability to it becoming a real possibility.

In August, Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan, in a highly contentious move. In February, the US shot down a Chinese high-altitude balloon leading Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, to cancel his trip to Beijing. And now there’s the nuclear subs and the Aukus pact. Malaysia and Indonesia have both raised concerns about the arms race playing out on their doorstep, highlighting their fears for peace and stability in the region.

China’s response has been clear: its foreign minister Qin Gang warned that US escalation could lead to direct conflict between the two rival powers; President Xi pledged to build the Chinese military into a ‘great wall of steel’, while urging the US to stop stoking tensions in the Pacific and inflaming a ‘hysteric new McCarthyism’.

As for the UK, the updated integrated defence review described China as posing an ‘epoch-defining challenge’ to the world order. The UK has approved a significant increase in exports of submarine parts and technology to Taiwan in the last year. According to Reuters, £167 million worth of such exports were approved in the first nine months of 2022, more than in the previous six years combined. This is undeniably a provocative act.

But regardless of the harsh words and escalatory actions, Sunak still insists he wants to engage with China on trade. Money talks, even when it comes to the ‘biggest state-based threat to our economic security’.

Britain relies heavily on Chinese investment and Chinese technology, while British jets remain on standby to shoot down Chinese surveillance balloons in UK airspace. But the hawks are making inroads, and this week the UK joined the US and much of Europe in banning TikTok on government devices.

Aggressive moves towards China, the huge boost to defence spending, and the nuclear-subs deal were met with almost unanimous approval in parliament; only one MP spoke up against this belligerence: Jeremy Corbyn. Parliament is united in its support for a new the arms race, even one which clearly opens up the possibility a war in the Pacific.

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