Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Among the must-see gigs in London in the past week were, depending on taste, Adele at Hyde Park, Ed Sheeran at Wembley… and Mike Pompeo unplugged.
On Monday, the all-too-apt 4th July, the former US Secretary of State and CIA Director gave a wide-ranging assessment of current global strategic landscape. He focused on the West and the rest, in particular authoritarian regimes, the most prominent of which is China.
The launch of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine on 24th February was a reveille in defence ministries and armed forces across Europe for a swift reassessment of their current military capabilities.
Last week’s NATO summit in Madrid endorsed the alliance’s new Strategic Concept, the first in a decade. It stated that Russia is ‘the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area’.
On this side of the Channel, pressure is growing to protect the size of the Army. After all, British boots might have to be on the ground to strengthen NATO’s Eastern flank. At a time described by NATO as ‘critical’ for international peace and security, the possibility of cutting troop numbers by about 10,000, down to 72,500, is still being considered.
A fortnight ago, in his first major speech, General Sir Patrick Sanders. the new Chief of the General Staff (CGS), likened the situation confronting Europe to 1937. Back then, not only was the National Government’s military readiness woeful, but civil defence measures to protect the population almost non-existent.
Stanley Baldwin failed to heed his own long-standing warning that ‘the bomber will always get through’. Cinema newsreels of firestorms in the Spanish cities and Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, based on German bombing of a Republican village in April 1937, showed what happened when those bombers succeeded.
Despite all the positives in connection with the UK’s defence policy – the second highest rate of military spending in NATO, the UK’s contribution to Ukraine, the projected 2.5 per cent GDP spending commitment, the outstanding Ben Wallace – the proposed cuts to Army numbers are indeed ‘perverse’, as Sanders stated. He added: ‘You can’t cyber your way across a river… It takes an army to hold and regain territory.’
On Sunday Richard Dannatt, a former head of the Army now freed from the conventions of serving commanders’ omertà, stated that troop cuts are madness and will leave the Army at breaking point. He called for the planned cuts to be reversed and instead for more investment in land war-fighting capability.
Current and future Army strength should not just be seen in the context of its 100,000+ soldiers during General Dannatt’s tenure as CGS (2006-09), but also of NATO’s commitment last week to placing 300,000 troops on high readiness.
Although NATO’s recent focus has been on Ukraine, last week China came formally onto its radar. The era of strategic ambiguity is over, as the Strategic Concept made clear: ‘The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.’
The alliance’s language was far from diplomatic. China strives to subvert the rules-based international order; it seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, as well as critical infrastructure; its malicious cyber and hybrid operations and disinformation not only target allies, but harm Alliance security. In short:
‘The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up.’
Pompeo, whose interview at Policy Exchange can be seen on YouTube, was also keen to convey the threat from China. To paraphrase: the current kowtowing to Beijing must stop.
While none of us want to sound like a foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, the origin of Covid-19, which has so far killed six million people, remains opaque. Western governments’ panicked response to this latest coronavirus has led to a self-inflicted economic calamity. In turn, such calamities have a historic propensity eventually to turn into political upheaval.
Beijing is surely familiar with the military strategist Sun Tzu. Writing in circa 500 BC, two of his maxims were ‘All warfare is based on deception’ and ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’
Over the past two decades, the West has become reliant on cheap Chinese imports. These goods might yet come at a heavy price. While it is easy to be sniffy on environmental grounds about teenagers’ love of Shanghai-exported fast fashion, few are willing to start examining Beijing’s deeper reach into our society.
Unless we are certain that the Chinese Communist Party’s interests are compatible with our own, we should never have considered allowing Beijing to have a stake in our critical national infrastructure, such as developing the Hinckley Point C nuclear power station or allowing Huawei to be involved in the British telecom sector. As Pompeo said on Monday, ‘There is no such thing as a private Chinese company.’
Does the China Investment Corporation, part of Beijing’s sovereign wealth fund, still have its holding in Thames Water? We should start questioning the extent of the PRC’s reach into Britain’s elite universities, too.
Pompeo, a key advisor to Donald Trump, demanded ‘reciprocity’ from China; the same freedom of speech and movement accorded to the West’s citizens in China as Chinese citizens are given in the West.
Both he and NATO have expressed concern about deepening Russo-Chinese ties. Should such concern be vindicated, it must be wondered why Britain is letting China to penetrate so deeply into its social fabric. After all, it is unthinkable that Margaret Thatcher or any other prime minister would have tolerated Moscow’s infiltration of Britain’s private companies and institutions during the Cold War.
It would be ironic if Europe re-casts its defence only to discover that Russia is a second-order problem. It must be wondered what Sun Tzu would have to say about Britain gearing up to fight enemies abroad only to find out that they have been warmly welcomed within.