Europe’s focus this year has been on the war in Ukraine and the Russian threat. What are the implications of the rise of China for European security? Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan provoked an instant response from China. How serious is the strategic challenge to the future defence of Europe? Chapter 5 of Future War and the Defence of Europe addressed the question. Have China’s objectives changed due to the war in Ukraine?
China’s growing power and influence
Under President Xi Jinping, China’s economy has boomed and it has used it to expand its vision beyond the Indo-Pacific into Africa and the West, challenging the US as the dominant global power. It has steadily invested in aid and cheap loans for development of infrastructure in poor African countries.
This fosters reliance and dependency on China so it can later use coercion to bring those countries under its control. Its $1.2tn belt and road initiative (BRI) is central to Beijing’s ambition to influence the future strategic choice of African and European states. The BRI involves investment in sea lanes between South-East Asia, the Pacific and North Africa and roads and railways across Asia, the Middle East to Europe.
The maritime part of this massive project aims to provide – and control – strategic communications. The Huawei company managed Pakistan East African Connecting Europe (PEACE) sea-bed cable; fast internet network runs from the Chinese-built Pakistani port of Gwadar to North African ports including Djibouti. China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Its aim is to extend the cable to Egypt, where China is investing heavily, and from there maybe to Europe.
Sri Lanka’s economy was weakened at the end of its civil war in 2019. Bad mismanagement by its government and the effects of Covid led to a drop in the tourist trade, major shortages of fuel, food and medicines and closure of schools. Inflation rose to more than 50%. China was one of many states and institutions that bought some of its debt by financing investment in utilities, roads, ports and airports and telecom towers.
In May this year Sri Lanka defaulted on the interest payments on its foreign debts and, following protests, the president and prime minister (brothers) resigned leaving a power vacuum. China is not well known for cooperating with other lenders (eg the IMF) to agree a debt restructuring plan, preferring to push for a bilateral agreement. China owns about $3.5B of Sri Lanka’s current total debt of $51B.
In this way, China acquired a naval base in Sri Lanka. On 12 August a Chinese-built Pakistani frigate PNS Taimur called at the port of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Four days later the Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese surveillance ship, docked in the port of Hambantota in the south of Sri Lanka. Now India is concerned at the creeping growth of China’s influence in its backyard.
How should Europe respond?
In 2019, Italy’s huge debt built up since the 2008–2010 banking crisis and insufficient regulation of some Eurozone banks caused their then coalition government to seek foreign investment. China persuaded them to join the BRI and sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU). This caused alarm in Europe and the United States and was also contested by Italian opposition parties at the time, especially as the MoU included takeover of Italian technology companies by a Chinese firm.
The US-led ban on the Chinese technological company Huawei, which has also affected Italian and European dealings with the company, reflects the growing technological competition with China. Technology has turned into a core battlefield in US–China and EU–China relations due to its strategic relevance from national security to trade, environmental policies and human rights.
It was a ‘geopolitically unwise’ decision that could have led to a fall for debt trap diplomacy. For Italy, a NATO nation, to be coerced into a sympathetic stance towards China would be a direct threat to the security of Europe. With the appointment of Mario Draghi as prime minister in February 2021, Italy completed a decisive change of tack, distancing itself from a previous openness towards China and bringing its stance back in line with the EU and US.
Central and Eastern European countries must recognise the long-term political implication of the strings attached to Chinese money. It is a key to Xi Jinping’s ambition for China to be the dominant global power by 2050.
The impact of Covid
Covid has damaged both China’s economy and its reputation for reliability and trustworthiness, initially by suppressing information about the source of Covid during the early days of its outbreak and then by employing propaganda and disinformation during its management. It sought to exploit the crisis for military-strategic gain at the expense of the US.
While the West was focused on the pandemic, China engaged in naval exercises in the South China Sea and projection of its military power over the islands, despite territorial claims by neighbouring states. This provocation increased tension with the US, confirming their resolve to devote more resources to the region.
The UK and France supported them with a brief deployment of an aircraft carrier to the region, although the extent of support Europe can give in that area is questionable. There already is a commitment in the form of the five eyes intelligence group (US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand).
Since 1949, Europe’s defence has been established on the principle that the US is Europe’s pivotal power. Europe has been happy to base their national security and defence investment on that principle. President Trump’s domestic handling of the pandemic and assertiveness that Europe must pay more for its security are seen by China and Russia as cracks appearing in the transatlantic alliance.
If Washington decides it cannot sustain its defence support to Europe and respond to the rising challenge of China, Europe will be forced to make a radical review of its defence effort, at a time when it is facing a recession, heavily increased by the cost of recovering from Covid. Listen to the economic arguments in the farcical UK PM election: the huge loss in trade that is due to Brexit. We have a summer of discontent, domestic hardship and strikes. Where is the political will and money to devote adequate funds to cope with the global challenges of today?
Realpolitik or machtpolitik?
Realpolitik is engaging in diplomatic or political policies based on given circumstances.
Machtpolitik is the use of power, and especially physical force, by a political state in the attainment of its objectives.
Over the last ten years, the Chinese military budget has increased substantially: by what percentage is difficult to quantify due to non-declaration of their research and development funding. They are becoming a military power with global reach while not yet having to spread their resources across the globe like the USA.
They now have a ‘blue water’ Navy including aircraft carriers and a maritime amphibious capability, long-range hypersonic missiles and the largest ballistic missile force in the world.
China has the military power to invade Taiwan at a time of its choosing. But time is on its side.
Since March, Beijing’s zero-compromise attitude to stamping out coronavirus led to months of lockdowns in dozens of cities across the country, including Shanghai, the nation’s financial and shipping hub. Higher global commodity prices, especially food and energy prices, have added to imported inflation.
Growing stagflation risks around the world also threaten China’s economic stability. Xi Jinping must deliver his promise to the Chinese people of rising individual prosperity in return for his unquestioned power. He can afford time to continue developing the BRI and produce human-created islands in the East and South China Seas for military purposes while gathering fish to feed his people. Simultaneously, he can extend his claim of sovereignty over those seas to stretch US Forces ever more widely. He will use machtpolitik when it suits him.
While US counters this threat from China, what happens in Europe?
Europe, in its current form, can no longer rely on the US to underpin European defence within NATO. It is only the EU that can lead the way to an integrated, common defence force for the long-term security of our continent.
The war in Ukraine has resulted in greater cohesion between European states and NATO than Russia expected. The inclusion of Finland and Sweden in NATO, the forward deployment of forces and supply of equipment and training to Ukraine are to be applauded. It is good to see Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, standing side-by-side.
The objective must be for EU national defence organisations to be combined and a strategic public-private industrial partnership formed with EU consortiums. Brexit has made such an aspiration a distant dream. One of its results is that a substantial amount of the military capabilities committed to the defence of Europe are now outside the EU.
Is that taking back control? No, it is more reason for the UK to rejoin the EU. Maybe I’ll see you at the National Rejoin March in London on 22 October.