Michael Auslin

Why China has its eye on the Falklands

Why China has its eye on the Falklands
Port Stanley (photo: Getty)
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Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has paradoxically heightened China’s global reputation, if only because it has not yet invaded a weaker neighbour. Yet China remains a far greater threat over the long run than Russia. And recent disruptive behaviour by Xi Jinping should remind London, Washington and their allies that Beijing poses not merely a regional threat, but a global one.

Though overlooked in the wake of Russia’s devastation of Ukraine, Beijing has flagrantly interfered in Britain’s national interests by proclaiming support for Argentina’s claims to the Falkland Islands.

China’s timing was particularly provocative, given that 2022 marks the 40th anniversary of the Falklands war. Britain’s success in that conflict helped buttress international law and self-determination in the face of territorial revanchism by aggressive, authoritarian powers. But Beijing is well practiced in undermining these global legal norms, as proved by its dismissal of a Hague ruling against China’s expansive claims throughout the South China Sea.

Ironically, China’s Falkland declaration came just as the Biden White House rolled out its Indo-Pacific Strategy. The timing helped prove Washington’s assertion that far from cooperating in global governance, Beijing is instead increasingly adopting Moscow’s tactics of destabilisation and disruption.

The extraordinary intervention smacked of Cold War-era tactics to create geopolitical blocs. It came as Xi inducted Argentina into the One Belt, One Road initiative, giving Beijing a critical beachhead in South America to expand its exclusive Eurasian trade, investment, and infrastructure network into the western hemisphere, further fragmenting global trade and political relations.

China’s ploy is not likely to succeed. Led by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Britain was quick to flatly reject ‘any questions over the sovereignty of the Falklands,’ whose inhabitants firmly support remaining British. The real danger, however, is that Beijing is increasingly a disruptor in international relations, stoking tension, undermining liberal nations, encouraging regional conflict, and seeking to gain advantage while positioning itself as a supposedly disinterested diplomatic arbiter. Xi’s partner in this effort is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as shown by the now-infamous declaration by the two of a ‘new era’ in international relations in an alliance against liberal values.

Just half a decade ago, former Prime Minister Theresa May repeated that Britain and China were in a ‘golden era.’ Since then, Beijing has destroyed Hong Kong’s liberties, thereby abrogating its promises under the 1984 Joint Declaration, and threatened UK-Chinese trade over issues ranging from 5G networks to the Hinckley Point nuclear power plant.

Now, Beijing’s ‘firm support’ for Argentina’s claims and the Chinese Embassy’s even more provocative statement that London should enter into ‘dialogue and negotiations’ with Buenos Aires is further evidence that Beijing threatens British interests. Unfortunately, continued British attempts to get economically closer to China, such as by potentially selling the Newport Wafer Fab chip maker to the Chinese company Nexperia, only make Britain more vulnerable to Beijing’s coercion and influence campaigns.

Though the war in Ukraine is dragging Europe back to the 1930s, from the South China Sea to the South Atlantic, China is now adept at chipping away at the norms of global behaviour. Xi has made clear that he views himself as being in a struggle with the West and its liberal values. Western elites should no longer delude themselves that more talk and more exchange will in any way shape China’s behaviour.

As Xi, along with Putin, increases geopolitical instability, Britain and America must step up their actions in response. President Biden’s new Asia strategy pledges to ‘focus on every corner of the region,’ but risks letting Beijing outflank Washington in areas like the Middle East, Africa, and South America.

There is no easy way to blunt China’s disruptive behaviour, but some steps make sense. Bringing the UK into the revived Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States could help to globalise the group, whose interests are already transregional, thanks to their trade policies and political commitments. Similarly, moving Aukus beyond its Asian focus, and including Japan, could improve security cooperation around the globe.

Both Washington and London must be willing to respond to Beijing’s disruptive behaviour more assertively. While diplomatic channels should always be kept open, the type of unrestrained engagement with China that marked relations since the normalisation of ties in the 1970s needs to be rethought and scaled back. London’s new ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific should focus on strengthening liberal institutions and democratic nations.

If Beijing creates blocs opposing international law and norms, then London, Washington, and their allies need not bemoan that fact, but address the reality. Offering preferential trade agreements, defence coperation and enhanced access to our open societies to our allies may be the best way to underscore the dangers of falling for China’s blandishments and debt traps.

No one should think it a simple matter to counter China’s attacks on liberal norms and global stability. But each disruptive act by Beijing only makes the stakes clearer for the democratic world.

Written byMichael Auslin

Michael Auslin is the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics and the host of the Pacific Century podcast.

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