The diplomacy surrounding the recent agreement between Australia, the UK, and the US left much to be desired, and UK PM should now lead efforts to mollify the French. But this should not be the last agreement between like-minded powers to counter Chinese aggression
The basic text making the case for an international-relations rulebook was provided by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BCE. During that struggle, the inhabitants of Melos, the only significant island in the Aegean Sea not controlled by Athens, insisted on retaining their neutrality despite intense Athenian pressure. Eventually, the Athenians lost patience and wiped the Melians out, killing all the men and enslaving the women and children. The Athenian justification was simple: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
It has become increasingly apparent that this is also China’s view of the world today. Now a global economic power with a large navy, China seeks to tempt others with the prospect of selling more goods in its huge market or borrowing money for infrastructure projects. It may, for the sake of form, pretend to abide by the international agreements it has signed. But China’s leaders, in fine Leninist form, simply do whatever they deem to be in the Communist Party’s interest.
This is evident in China’s behavior in the sea lanes to its south; in its relations with neighbours such as Vietnam, India, and the Philippines; in the fight against epidemic disease; in its crackdowns in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet; and in its international trade and economic policy. In each case, China does what it wants and what it thinks it can get away with. And it regards any attempt by others to stand up to the bullies in Beijing as tantamount to launching a new Cold War. The truth is that China has long since initiated hostilities against any country that criticizes it – both covertly, through infiltration, espionage, and commercial theft, and more openly through its “wolf warrior” diplomacy. The only effective response is for those with common agendas based on international rules and norms – whether strong, middle-ranking, or weak powers – to stand together and aggregate their influence through alliances.
That is what Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom have recently done with their AUKUS defense agreement, under which Australia will acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. Australia has been disgracefully treated by China ever since it pressed for a full and open inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. That call came after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hoodwinked the Australians in January 2020 about the Wuhan health emergency – just when China was buying large quantities of medical equipment from Australia and other countries.
Australia’s geographic location and heavy reliance on exports to China potentially make it particularly vulnerable to Chinese bullying. It makes good sense for these three liberal democracies and old friends to work together to help Australia stand up to this.
Unfortunately, the negotiation of the AUKUS deal was badly mishandled, leaving France understandably angry at what looked like an underhanded breach of a previously negotiated deal for it to provide Australia with 12 conventional submarines. It is difficult to understand how this was allowed to happen. After all, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (a fluent French speaker) probably knows more about France and French politics than any recent occupant of his office. It is surprising that he did not help to steer a more sensible diplomatic course with President Emmanuel Macron’s government.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also should have seen the dangers. But Johnson is so desperate to show that post-Brexit Britain still counts for something in the world that he ignored the country’s abiding long-term interest in good and trustworthy relations with France, our nearest large neighbour.
France is the European country whose view of international security and defense most closely matches Britain’s, not least in relation to China. Sooner or later, Britain will need French understanding and support far more than it needs an online photo opportunity with US President Joe Biden. Who could blame the French for suggesting, when Britain next asks for their help, that the British call Washington instead? Johnson should therefore now take the lead in trying to broaden the agreement with Australia and the US to include France and perhaps Canada as well.
But what will China do now? The country’s next big part in international negotiations will come with the attempt to secure a strong global agreement on climate change at the forthcoming United Nations COP26 summit in Glasgow. China, the world’s largest carbon-dioxide emitter, gets some credit from environmental groups for its climate pledges. Yet, on close inspection, China’s commitments look hollow and inflated.
Three things are clear. First, China will not do anything for years to curb its CO2 emissions if it means disrupting economic growth and job creation. Second, Chinese firms will continue to buy stakes in Western companies (in Scotland, for example) that have created green technologies for renewable energy sources such as wind farms. But who else really benefits from China’s efforts to dominate this sector? Third, China – which faces large environmental challenges of its own, especially regarding water supply in its northern provinces – will leverage its agreement to climate goals, however inadequate, to compel others to toe the line on other issues. To get China to behave better on the environment, we will be told we must shut up about human rights violations and territorial aggression.
“The strong do what they can” is China’s guiding principle these days. As many other countries as possible must stand together to prevent it from undermining liberal democratic values in China’s neighbourhood and around the world. The diplomacy surrounding the AUKUS deal may have left much to be desired, but this should not be the last agreement between like-minded powers to counter Chinese aggression.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford