The Australia/UK/US (Aukus) deal for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines is the clearest demonstration yet of the UK’s tilt to the Pacific. It gives the UK a relevance there that will last decades. But, as I say in the magazine this week, there are risks as well. The biggest of these comes not from China’s strength, but its weakness.
The Aukus submarines will take years to arrive and the concern is that Beijing tries to get ahead of the new alliances emerging in the Pacific: not only Aukus, but also the ‘Quad’ alliance of the US, India, Japan and Australia. By 2030, the US-led world order will be far better placed to check China. The worry is what happens between now and then.
The influential American strategists Hal Brands and Michael Beckley have pointed out that — like Wilhelmine Germany or Imperial Japan in the 1940s — China might conclude that its rise is slowing, and that, if it doesn’t act now, then its moment of opportunity will have passed. This is what makes the next few years so dangerous.
China’s rate of economic growth has halved since 2007. It is increasingly saddled with national debt — now an astonishing 280 per cent of GDP, far more than any European country. China has been a middle-income country now for a quarter of a century. None of the countries that avoided the middle-income trap in the second half of the 20th century — South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore — spent three decades as a middle-income country. President Xi’s actions in recent weeks — banning private tutoring, reining in Chinese tech companies and squeezing the property sector — will all hit foreign investment (as we may be about to see with the Evergrande crisis), which has done so much to spur Chinese growth.
The biggest risk is that Xi calculates that his window to shape the region is closing and so attempts to take Taiwan.
Washington is deliberately ambiguous on whether it would defend Taiwan from attack. But in reality, no US president would have a choice. Revealingly, Joe Biden recently said that the US had a treaty obligation to protect Taiwan — even though it does not. To allow China to seize Taiwan would mark the end of the US-led world order. We are in for a dangerous decade.