UK Urges China to Explain ‘Biggest’ Peacetime Military Build-Up

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will call on China to be more transparent about its military expansion in the Indo-Pacific in order to avoid a “tragic miscalculation” over the future of Taiwan.

(Bloomberg) — UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will call on China to be more transparent about its military expansion in the Indo-Pacific in order to avoid a “tragic miscalculation” over the future of Taiwan.

It’s “wrong” to declare a new cold war and seek to isolate China, Britain’s top diplomat will say in a speech at Mansion House in London on Tuesday. But the foreign secretary will also condemn Chinese oppression in Xinjiang and its dismantling of freedoms in Hong Kong, as well as questioning its military motives.

“China is carrying out the biggest military build-up in peacetime history,” Cleverly will say in the keynote speech. “The UK and our allies are prepared to be open about our presence in the Indo-Pacific. I urge China to be equally open about the doctrine and intent behind its military expansion, because transparency is surely in everyone’s interests and secrecy can only increase the risk of tragic miscalculation.”

Cleverly’s intervention marks the fullest explanation yet of the UK administration’s approach to Beijing under Rishi Sunak. His speech underlines the tricky balancing act the UK faces in dealing with a regime whose approach to human rights clashes with Britain’s liberal values, but whose economic clout makes Chinese buy-in indispensable to tackling a range of global issues.

“No significant global problem — from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic stability to nuclear proliferation — can be solved without China,” Cleverly will say. 

Cleverly’s approach offers echoes of US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s more measured language toward Beijing, an attempt to dial-down the hawkish rhetoric. In a speech last week about restoring dialog Yellen indicated that while national security trumps economic ties, the US also had no wish to decouple its trading relationship with China.

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While China boasts the world’s second-largest military budget, the country shares little detail about the overall size, make-up and distribution of its armed forces beyond a single annual spending figure. Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered the development of a “world-class military” that’s ready to fight and win wars, without indicating against whom they’re preparing to face off against.

The Pentagon said in its annual report on China last year that the People’s Liberation Army is preparing to take Taiwan “by force if perceived necessary by Beijing while simultaneously deterring, delaying or denying any intervention by a third party, such as the United States and/or any like-minded partners.”

Sunak’s government has not explicitly labeled China a “threat,” as sought by some backbench Conservatives. He has instead labeled it as an “epoch-defining challenge.”

 A review of the UK’s long-term foreign policy published last month found that the nation doesn’t believe its relationship with China is set on a “predetermined course,” and future cooperation would hinge on whether Beijing pursues greater authoritarianism and assertiveness overseas. 

Since taking office in October, Sunak has acknowledged the need for trade and diplomatic relations with China, noting the strategic importance of the Taiwan straits for global shipping trade. 

Nevertheless, tensions between London and Beijing repeatedly flare. Only last week, his government said a report of an alleged secret Chinese police station in south London is of “great concern” and that it will not tolerate any attempt by China to harass its citizens. 

In December, China removed six consulate officials following a diplomatic spat over an attack on a Hong Kong man staging a peaceful protest outside the country’s consulate in Manchester.

Sunak also has no plans to visit Beijing, with the last visit by a British premier taking place in 2018. That marks him out from other Western leaders who have recently traveled to China including France’s Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. 

The foreign secretary’s Mansion House speech is an annual set-piece more usually used by the government to paint a broad picture of its approach to various foreign policy issues. But Cleverly’s will focus solely on China, in recognition of its “huge significance” to global affairs, according to the Foreign Office. 

“To give up on China would be to give up on addressing humanity’s biggest problems,” Cleverly will say. “It would be clear and easy – perhaps even satisfying – for me to declare a new Cold War and say that our goal is to isolate China. Clear, easy, satisfying – and wrong. Because it would be a betrayal of our national interest and a willful misunderstanding of the modern world.”

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