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Why the Anglosphere sees eye to eye on China

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As a general rule, it is a good idea to be wary of people who bang on about the “Anglosphere”. In Britain, it is an idea that has a strong whiff of imperial and second world war nostalgia about it. The notion harks back to Winston Churchill, who wrote a four-volume History of the English-speaking Peoples.

Now, however, the idea of an Anglosphere is taking on an unexpected contemporary relevance. The trigger is the increasingly assertive behaviour of China, which is bringing together a group of English-speaking countries, all of whom have adopted more confrontational policies towards Beijing. 

The Trump administration started a trade war with China and ramped up naval operations in the Pacific. A willingness to confront Beijing is clearly going to persist, in modified form, during Joe Biden’s administration. The new US president has promised “extreme competition” with China. The first phone call between Antony Blinken, US secretary of state and Yang Jiechi, his Chinese counterpart, was spiky.

However, some of America’s European allies are very wary of what they fear will be a new cold war with China. The EU shocked Biden’s team by signing a new investment deal with Beijing — ignoring pleas for consultation with the US. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, went out of her way in a recent speech to warn against anti-China sentiment dividing the world into blocs. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, has made similar statements.

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By contrast, the US is getting more support from the UK, Australia and Canada. These nations have all seen their relations with Beijing deteriorate sharply over the past couple of years. As a result, they are more inclined to take the American view that a rising China is a threat that must be countered.

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Australian hawkishness is partly a product of the close links between the security establishments of Washington and Canberra. But it is also a result of China’s imposition of trade sanctions in response to 14 Australian “sins”, identified by China, which included Canberra calling for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. 

Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, in response to a US extradition request, sparked fury in Beijing. Shortly afterwards, two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were arrested in China and accused of spying. They have essentially been held hostage ever since. Relations between Canada and China are in their worst state since diplomatic ties were restored 50 years ago.

Britain’s view of China has also been transformed over the past year. China’s crackdown in Hong Kong caused an outcry in political circles. The UK has offered a path to citizenship to potentially millions of Hong Kong residents — a move denounced in Beijing. Each week seems to bring a fresh downturn in UK-China relations. The British media regulator has just banned CGTN, the Chinese broadcaster, on the grounds that it is ultimately controlled by the Communist party. China has denounced the BBC for broadcasting allegations of systematic rape in Uighur detention camps. Relations may chill further this year when the British dispatch an aircraft carrier to the Pacific, where it will take part in exercises with the US Navy.

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The Chinese government has noticed this emerging Anglosphere. When the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK issued a joint statement about Hong Kong, China’s official response was ferocious. These countries form the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing group, which prompted Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, to comment: “No matter if they have five eyes or 10 eyes, if they dare to harm China’s sovereignty . . . they should beware of their eyes being poked and blinded.”

British officials point out that the Five Eyes is not an alliance — its remit does not go beyond intelligence. But there is now discussion of giving the group a more overtly political edge by adding a sixth pair of eyes. Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, has suggested Japan might be invited to join. Many China-watchers in Washington are keen on this suggestion, although the US intelligence community is sceptical.

Japan is not the only Asian nation being courted by the Anglosphere. India is also central to strategic thinking in Washington, London and Canberra — as indicated by the increasing vogue for the term “Indo-Pacific” in all three capitals. The US renamed its Pacific military command the “Indo-Pacific” command in 2018. The Indo-Pacific is also likely to be heavily emphasised in Britain’s new national security strategy, which will be published soon. 

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New Delhi has always guarded its foreign policy autonomy. As an emerging superpower it has no intention of being used by Washington, let alone London. 

On the other hand, in what is likely to be seen as a historic blunder, China killed Indian troops in a clash in the Himalayas last June. India’s attitude to China has since hardened considerably — with Delhi pushing through controls on Chinese investments and technology. Technological co-operation is one area where India and the Anglosphere are likely to work together. India is already part of “the Quad”, which brings together the US, Australia, Japan and India for naval exercises

As the US seeks allies willing to push back against China, the Anglosphere plus the big Asian democracies looks like the most promising combination.

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Follow Gideon Rachman with myFT and on Twitter

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