Argument

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The United Kingdom Dispatches HMS Queen Elizabeth to Confront China

Are U.S. allies finally rallying around Washington’s more aggressive stance toward Beijing?

By , the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics: Essays on Reshaping the Indo-Pacific and is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
People watch from the shore as the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier leaves Portsmouth Naval Base in southeastern England on May 1.
People watch from the shore as the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier leaves Portsmouth Naval Base in southeastern England on May 1. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

For more than 800 years, English naval ships have been launching from Portsmouth, bound for the world’s oceans. Last week, the Royal Navy opened a new era with the departure of a new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, for the beginning of an seven-month deployment that will bring it to the Indo-Pacific, along with a strike group. There, the Royal Navy task force will participate in operations designed to ensure freedom of navigation and open seas. The reason? “We see China as being a challenge and a competitor,” said Britain’s first sea lord, Adm. Tony Radakin, during a visit with his U.S. counterpart, Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations.

Some might wonder why the British are sticking their toes into the turbulent waters of far-away Asia—why London is suddenly so committed to upholding a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” adopting the slogan used by the Trump and Biden administrations alike. Or, even more tellingly, why so many nations even beyond the United Kingdom are increasingly vocal in their criticisms of Beijing.

The looming Chinese-U.S. confrontation—and especially the United States’ supposedly more aggressive stance—is often cited as the main threat to global peace. The danger is argued to be the result of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn four decades of more cooperative U.S. policy toward China. Trump’s moves, including imposing tariffs, banning tech companies, challenging Beijing’s influence campaigns, increasing naval operations in the South China Sea, and deepening ties with Taiwan, led to warnings that Washington was turning China into an enemy and pushing the two nations closer to conflict. For example, an open letter to then-President Trump signed by more than 100 American academics and former diplomats and military officers expressed the belief that “many U.S. actions are contributing directly to the downward spiral in relations.”

The fact that the Biden administration has not only continued but in some ways intensified Trump’s policies has added to concern that the U.S. foreign-policy elite is now irrevocably committed to a confrontational approach to China. Thus, the Nation’s Michael Klare criticized Secretary of State Antony Blinken for lambasting the Chinese at his Anchorage meeting with his Chinese counterparts and stated that the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea were “provocative maneuvers,” despite The Hague’s 2016 rejection of Beijing’s claims in those waters.

Were it really the case that America alone was to blame for U.S.-Chinese tensions, then one might expect to see other countries dissociate themselves from Washington’s apparently rash actions, either sitting on the sidelines or actively opposing U.S. policies. Instead, Beijing not only finds itself the target of a widening range of critics but in active disputes with a host of liberal nations.

From influence campaigns to hacking, from economic threats or coercion to the militarization of international waters, Beijing is increasingly exercising a might-makes-right foreign and security policy that is setting it against large parts of the world, independent of whatever is happening in U.S.-Chinese relations.

Perhaps the sharpest tensions are currently between Australia and China. Australia has been facing economic warfare from its biggest trading partner since it passed strict legislation starting in 2018 to block Chinese money from its domestic political system, ban Huawei from its 5G networks, and call for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Beijing has since ended economic dialogue with Canberra and either banned or put damaging tariffs on billions of dollars of Australian products, including beef, wine, wood, and lobster. In response, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne canceled two Belt and Road projects, and an Australian general warned of the high likelihood of armed conflict between the two countries.

Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. told Beijing to “get the fuck out” of the waters of what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea. The highly undiplomatic chastisement came after months of Chinese pressure at Whitsun Reef, with China at one point lashing hundreds of fishing vessels together in an attempt to intimidate Manila into surrendering the reef, à la the successful 2012 takeover of Scarborough Shoal. Beijing has largely ignored the 2016 Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against China’s claims in the South China Sea, continuing to send its fishing fleets and maritime forces into contested waters.

India remains on combat footing in the Himalayas, where Chinese forces regularly cross the so-called Line of Actual Control in strategic passes between Aksai Chin and Ladakh. Clashes there between forces of the two nuclear nations in the summer of 2020 led to the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese. Indian commanders have stated that Chinese actions are the most aggressive since the 1962 border war between the two.

As for Japan, its air force scrambled almost 1,000 times in 2019 to counter Chinese incursions into airspace over the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu), while in 2020 Chinese vessels entered the contested waters 333 times, forcing the Japanese coast guard and navy to respond. This continues a pattern of intimidation stretching back over a decade.

Even New Zealand, criticized by some in the West for being too hesitant to call out Chinese policies like the oppression of the Uyghurs or the crushing of Hong Kong’s democracy, has started to change its tune. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently stated that it is becoming more difficult to reconcile differences with China, its largest trading partner.

One can agree or disagree with Joe Biden’s or Trump’s China policy. What’s evident, though, is that other leading nations around the world are just as worried about Beijing’s threats to regional stability, freedom of navigation, domestic economic and political systems, democracy movements, and intellectual property. In short, whatever one thinks about U.S. policy, the problem does not lie simply with a Washington looking for a new enemy to fight. Rather, countries that share broadly liberal values believe based on their own assessments that Beijing is a threat in some degree to their way of life, too.

Given this environment, the new British desire to get more engaged in the Indo-Pacific is understandable, despite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s statement that he is “fervently Sinophile.” His government, like others, now recognizes that it must deal with the China it has, not the China it wants.

In light of this reality, the more assertive policies of the Trump and Biden administrations make sense. In particular, the Quad alignment of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia has a particular utility in helping to forge a common security consensus among the leading liberal nations in the region. The Quad won’t replace America’s defense alliances, but it can play a different type of role in promoting shared norms and cooperation.

The heads of state meeting of the Quad leaders this spring was an important milestone, but the participants need to begin discussing broader goals and the sensitive question of what kinds of joint actions they are willing to carry out that focus on security and stability. Given the tensions each of these countries has with China, the grouping likely will not be seen as anything other than anti-China. That, however, should not be an excuse to derail the coalition. The new commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. John Aquilino, will have an opportunity to help shape the next phase of the Quad initiative, working with the White House’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell.

Further, Washington and its Asian partners should consider how other, non-Asian nations concerned with regional stability may play a common role. Here, the French and British are the likeliest candidates. In addition to their dependence on open trade routes, the countries together have nearly millions of expatriate citizens or overseas dependents in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as territory stretching from the southern Indian Ocean to Oceania in the Pacific. Both have identified the Indo-Pacific as a key strategic concern; the French have released several Asia strategies, while the British emphasized the region in its recently concluded Integrated Review.

No one will pretend that either Paris or London can play a role comparable to Washington, but neither should their interests be dismissed. With the British sending HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region, and the French having joined the Quad nations in maritime exercises in April, these two nations have the potential to help buttress regular Quad activities and complement the more limited capabilities of the Japanese, Indians, and Australians.

In a number of important capitals in Asia and beyond, it appears that patience has run out with Beijing. No state is unaware of its economic ties with China nor the fact that the world’s second-most powerful nation will undoubtedly play a major global role. However, it is Beijing’s policies, not American nefariousness, that is causing an international reaction.

In response, a united front of both numbers and common interests is not an artificial creation but a natural evolution in response to Beijing’s actions. The world no longer needs to profess its goodwill in having tried for a half-century to integrate China into the global economic and political systems. The record of such efforts is clear, including repeatedly shying away from imposing any costs on Beijing for either predatory behavior or breaking agreements. Now, leading states are realizing that it is time to figure out how to defend both their interests and the broader community that has helped keep peace among the great powers since 1945.

Michael Auslin is the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics: Essays on Reshaping the Indo-Pacific and is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.