Written evidence submitted by Professor Greg Kennedy



When the Indo Pacific Tilt was undertaken the question was, which strategy would best serve Britain to deliver its national security in a rapidly changing world, increasingly dominated by a rising China: take a larger role in the Indo Pacific region including an increased focus on hard power, or, focus the hard power elements on the Euro-Atlantic/Indian Ocean Region while using other power to protect UK national interests in the Asia Pacific? Now, managing the challenges of the Euro Atlantic security environment dominated by a need for economic re-construction in a post-BREXIT, post-COVID and now post-Russo-Ukrainian War strategic environment, The UK’s choice to expand into the Pacific theatre in particular, could be viewed by a competitive China as a direct threat, especially given its stated objection to any NATO-like expansion into the region. Conversely, a China made more agreeable by recent events in Europe may welcome increasing trade under the right conditions with a “Global Britain”, responding generously with increased free trade opportunities. In all situations, the strategic calculus that underpinned the Pacific part of the Tilt now needs serious recalculation and no further actions should be taken in support of it until a new strategic appreciation has been done.


Professor Greg Kennedy is the Professor of Strategic Foreign Policy in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London and the Director of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies, King’s College London, located at the Joint Services Command and Staff College at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

The Ukrainian Crisis and the UK Asian Pivot

The Russian invasion of the Ukraine last week has created a stark truth out of what many had previously hypothesized was a great strategic danger to the UK Government’s foreign policy vanity project, the Indo Pacific Tilt: a major conflict and sustained state of international tension created by Russian aggression that would tie down European and American power in Europe for an indefinite period of time. There can be no joy found in taking an “I told you so” position by such analysts, but equally, there would be no strategic logic in supporters of the Tilt to not acknowledging the significance of these events on the UK’s ability to project hard power into the Asia Pacific region in the near future.

There are a number of strategic realities that will now need to be taken into account with regard to the UK’s engagement in the Asia Pacific. First is the impact of increased defence spending that will occur across Europe and the United States. The proving of the world to be still a nasty and brutish place will inspire a greater investment in hard military power, at least in the short term and as already been evidenced in statements by Germany and other EU nations. The UK strategic influence as part of such a rearming Europe and the relationship of those activities to other vital UK-EU trade and economic relations cannot be overstated, and thus cannot be ignore. However, the UK economy will not be able to sustain a two-front defence programme, one for Europe and one for Asia, so something will have to give. Indeed, great pains must be made to explain that any increased UK military power is not aimed at the Indo-Pacific in the first instance and would only be used in that region in an emergency such as has occurred in the Ukraine. And as there is as yet no substantial infra-structure or hard and fast commitments to procurement that is solely aimed at the Asia Pacific Tilt, other forms of UK power can do the job of protecting national interests in that region while hard military power is focused on the European situation. Furthermore, until a Putinless Russia is a reality, which could be a difficult thing to achieve, there is no guarantee that any Russian leadership that replaced him would automatically make Europe safer. European security implications have a more profound effect on the UK’s prosperity than anywhere else in the world, as events have brought to light to those previously unaware of that fact. To safeguard a UK economy that is trying to find its way forward post-BREXIT, post-COVID and now post-Ukrainian War it is crucial that defence and security spending be more closely aligned to the protection of economic and fiscal requirements strategically than ever before. And the critical Centre of Gravity for that recovery and ongoing protection from further disruption through effective deterrence is to be found in Europe.

Secondly, the impact of a re-arming Western world will not go unnoticed by China, who has up till now enjoyed a substantial rise in its modern military capabilities in comparison to most Western nations, except perhaps the United States. The new global strategic reality of a re-arming West will force the Chinese to have to re-calibrate what a re-arming Europe and America now means for the future effectiveness of their own military power: does the impact of the Russian action on Western appreciations of military power represent a danger to China’s hard power position? Will increased Western defence spending and public opinion now attuned to the possibility of powerful states not acting in the interests of globalisation and collective prosperity, erode the expensive coercive military power China has invested in for the past two decades? What lessons will China take away from the Economic Warfare used against Russia once hostilities had begun and what counter-measures will it put in place to attempt to thwart any similar actions taken against it? Will those Economic Warfare measures and the resolve shown by the West to take significant economic pain act as part of a deterrence narrative and strategy that the UK, the United States and others can now utilize in their “peaceful” relations with China? Let’s take the first question about possible Chinese perceptions of the utility of military power now.

A similar strategic choice faced Imperial Japan in the late 1930s. Building up its military power throughout the 1930s allowed Japan to expand through the violation of sovereign rights in China and challenge the existing liberal international order and regional balance of power. Anglo-American failures to effectively project military power or to effectively deter Japan through other means allowed imperialist Japan to occupy and control vast parts of China, establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1934, followed by a full and open invasion of China in July 1937. Although sanctions and other economic measures were taken to attempt to deter Japan from further expansion, those failed and when a general European war broke out Japan continued to use its militarily backed policy of conquest to occupy French Indo-China and Thailand, all in the face of ever escalating sanctions and economic warfare. By the spring of 1941 however, with its main continental threat Soviet Russia now embroiled in a battle for survival with Nazi Germany, Japan was faced with a stark strategic decision. Although the various economic warfare methods, including asset freezing were having some effect, their effect was not immediate. What was more worrying to the Japanese leadership was the fact that pushed now by the unavoidable reality of a general European war and an opportunistic Japan and Italy, both Great Britain and the United States were committed to large scale military mobilization and the creation of modern industrial military power the likes of which Japan had no chance of competing against. Japan had reached a point of having to choose to either to use its military power to continue any further territorial expansion or have to settle for a negotiated peace, a situation that would endanger the authority of the autocratic government. In the end it chose to use its military power rather than see its hard-earned military advantage slowly and expensively diminished over time and its strategic leverage reduced.

China is not Japan in that it is not so economically incapable of competing with Western economies to produce wealth or military power. However, there will be strategic pressure of a similar sort as felt by Japan by Chinese nationalists and those who would not wish for the hard won Chinese military position to be reduced or become more expensive in the future. Nonetheless, for the UK, by not pressing of its own accord, or, more importantly not being coerced by the United States to be seen to be part of a now superheated military encirclement of China, a UK foreign policy that does not “Tilt” in a hard power sense to the Asia Pacific will offer more opportunity for dialogue and other forms of power to be used to continue to oppose Chinese expansionist or disruptive tendencies towards the Liberal International Order.

If China is punished for supporting Russia in the long-term through a series of sanctions and economic restrictions; an economic Cold War, the ramifications of such an outcome will be an enormously diminished and unstable international economic system. The removal of Russia for a period of time, even for a decade or more if required if Putin remained in government after “peace” (and what sort of peace is arrived at has huge implications for all of these possibilities) is declared, can be tolerated and adapted to, as uncomfortable as that may be. To add to that problem the spectre of China also being significantly dislocated from European economies struggling in a post-BREXIT, post-COVID and post-war environment would not be something most European nations would see eye to eye with the United States on. Here the UK must move carefully and act as a broker between the US and Europe, using the power of the City and UK economic power to arrive at a pragmatic and rationale position. American reactions to China aiding Russia, particularly if linked to the difficult American economic situation that has already been produced by the COVID measures taken and now exacerbated by the sanctions against Russia, will undoubtedly be vitriolic and demanding of punitive action. The UK will have to walk a careful tightrope in terms of seeking to engage China in the economic order that is advantageous to its national security and prosperity needs, which means a China linked to a healthy and secure Europe, while at the same time America will demand a more coercive or confrontational attitude in dealing with China and its global economy.

Furthermore, China will undoubtedly take note of the economic warfare measures waged against Russia and evaluate its own options as far as vulnerabilities or opportunities are concerned: offensive and defensive economic warfare methodologies. Although a painful reality perhaps for some nations to have to accept, the interconnected nature of the Russian economy was an Achilles heel which it could not protect and gives strong proof to the concept of holding the Chinese economy close in order to protect the rest of the world’s economy at the same time. A key aspect in all of this is the danger of adopting nationalistic approaches is the application of protectionist trade policies to manage a trade balance and domestic economy. China survives on export growth, particularly now since the COVID pandemic has drastically curtailed its economic progress. If targeted by trade tariffs, China could respond in kind and impose its own importation tariffs on the UK and others, exacerbating the existing current trade deficit further. For the UK this would present a significant challenge as it imported more goods from China (£11.0 billion) than from any other trading partner in Quarter 2 2020. Furthermore, a collective Anglo-American approach to economic containment to China in retaliation for support to Russia would draw the European economies into the fray, creating unimaginable tensions in any attempt to maintain Western unity on economic warfare tools required to deal with Russia at that point. The main point is that the UK must be alert to the fact that the laws of unintended consequences will be very much in application if China’s economic power is targeting significantly in the post-Ukrainian War world.

Soft power is a much more rationale and affordable option for the UK to apply in this situation. China’s strategic weakness is its lack of soft power  which presents the West its greatest opportunity to challenge and offset growing Chinese economic and military prowess.  The strength of Western culture is considered a threat in China, particularly given Chinese views on the superiority of their own. This will also be a lesson they have observed in the Russian people as well. China lacks the inter-connected language, diplomatic, educational and liberal institutions that produce the rich networks that strengthen common interests and trust between states. China recognise this weakness and have made substantial investments in numerous overseas Confucius institutions but also made great attempts to better understand Western culture, particularly through exploiting cyber, to penetrate the western ‘psyche’ which can then be used to their advantage. The influence of these nodes of penetration by the Chinese government into UK university and private sector areas should be expelled now, as part of a deterrence signalling process. A key enabler for the proliferation of Western soft power has been the international system, but in recent decades confidence in the system has fallen, exacerbated more recently by President Trump’s repeated attacks on it which were then exploited by China. This shift was amply demonstrated by repeated Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council on even the most compelling case for international action in Syria to save lives and restore peace. To maintain a soft power advantage as a bulwark to growing Chinese power, it is critical the UK use its diplomatic expertise to ensure the international system works effectively and nations can see value in continuing to invest in it and not be lured into China’s orbit under some form of parallel and competing system. The UK will have to be even more active diplomatically and invest heavily in new alliances, such as AUKUS to secure this objective. The US will play the pivotal role as the status quo power guarantor and the UK must support its leadership, but not unequivocally. It is vital that the UK work with other Quad and Five-Eye actors, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the Republic of Korea amongst others, will be increasingly important to be able to balance against the Sino-US relationship becoming only an American interpretation of the situation.  Much as NATO has now re-discovered, this Asia Pacific allied realpolitik will involve political unity and clear messaging with extensive defence and security cooperation around the shared objective of managing China’s expanding malign influence.

The ability to be apart of the creation of such an strategic condition is an area of influence and engagement the UK can and must participate in much more than any Carrier Strike Group demonstrations or other forms of hard power. Indeed, the more hard power put into the region by the UK on a permanent basis the less able the strategic effect of soft power, diplomatic, economic and fiscal engagement becomes. While AUKUS and other forms of UK participation, in say QUAD discussions and planning, should certainly be pursued as part of the signalling of the seriousness with which the UK views its need to be an able participant in Asia Pacific military affairs if required, the “if required” element will give it some much needed strategic space with both friends and foe. It is the requirement, however, for astute and strategically competent statesmanship to navigate these uncertain and constantly shifting waters for the best outcome for the UK. Chinese strategic intentions are deliberately ambiguous, so the UK will need to invest in intelligence to baseline UK understanding and establish timely and reliable indicators and warning of change. The nature of the competition with China is increasingly zero-sum and defined by hard power calculations, and China is pursuing military dominance in offset domains where it thinks it can win without fighting such as cyber and economic warfare. These are areas the UK must challenge China in. The UK must better understand Chinese defence strategies to better inform policy objectives, capabilities and response options so it can successfully contest China. China lacks soft power and a wide range of reliable allies, a situation which exposes critical vulnerabilities the UK and its allies must exploit to contain malign Chinese influence and prevent divergence in the international system. Finally, the UK must continue to build its experience on China, pivoting to a more nuanced and longer-term national strategy which further exploits Western soft power advantage and with stronger allies presents a formidable challenge to Chinese hard power growth, showing its hard power resolve through programmes aimed primarily at the Euro-Atlantic/Indian Ocean Region, but which can re-orient to the Asia Pacific in an emergency, but not as a matter of operational routine.

All of this, however, should be seen through a prism of China being the big winner geo-politically out of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. It appears to be the power most able to act as any sort of broker for a peace settlement of any type. If the peace settlement asks for regime change in Russia and there can be no peace if Putin remains in power, then China will certainly have Putin’s Russia firmly within its geo-strategic orbit as a vassal state as Putin’s Russia cannot exist without China allowing it. And China will not contemplate the idea of Western orchestrated regime change taking place on that scale. Secondly, China will no doubt play the role of the United States and Great Britain as the brokers of the Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and prevent any peace from permanently or irreparably damaging Russia to a level of impotence on the world’s stage. China needs Russian energy and it needs a relatively strong nuclear Russia to help offset Western power, which will be seen to be in the ascendance in the aftermath the Russo-Ukrainian war if Putin’s Russia is seen to be even a hollower Great Power than it appears to be, propped up by only nuclear weapons and energy wealth. China will not wish for any peace settlement to take Russia completely out of the Great Power competition game and make it a China faces the rest competition. Lastly, China’s handling of the peace settlement process and its conduct during the conflict (particularly its abstaining from various UN votes and not publicly encouraging Putin during the conflict) will allow it to use its behaviour as a “good international citizen” to consolidate its role as a legitimate international leader, especially in areas where a decrease in Russian power, such as the Black Sea Region, will allow it to make strategic inroads and gains at a greater pace than already has been the case. Chinese competition in the southern borders and Black Sea Region which Russia had seen as its traditional areas of influence would be attracted to the Chinese gravitational tug in this post-war world.

Overall, the Russo-Ukrainian War should force the UK strategic policy making elite to do a complete reassessment of the Indo Pacific’s place now in the nation’s national security strategy calculus. Many previous assumptions are gone and replaced with a new reality. New assessments of the changed economic and geo-political power landscape globally need to be done, particularly once an end-state in the conflict is at least appreciable, be it definitive or fluid, so that more data is provided for understanding what “the peace” looks like. Finally, appreciating that the big winner out of all of this is in fact China and what that means for the UK and its associated powers and the nation’s global interests will create a realistic strategic appreciation. That appreciation will allows a nation that is now recovering from strategic and economic shocks created by BREXIT, COVID and a European war (an unthinkable act) to better invest in and integrate its suite of hard and soft power options in pursuit of a secure and prosperous Britain.