(UPDATE: recently the publication, UK Defence Daily, took down the article cited in the first paragraph below due to the fact that Britain’s Ministry of Defence declined to confirm or disconfirm whether they would, in fact, deploy the HMS Queen Elizabeth into contested waters in the South China Sea. For an updated article read here).
Recently, I was reading the UK Defence Journal and came upon this article. In it, the author cited Professor Malcolm Chalmers, the director of UK Defence Policy Studies at the prestigious Royal United Services Institute and his belief that the UK military could beat the Chinese in warfare. While I can respect the good professor’s admiration and faith in his countrymen (and I am certainly a bit of an Anglophile myself), I must respectfully disagree with him. The sad fact is that for several decades the British military, while maintaining a capability to “punch above its weight” as the article states, has seen painful reductions in its once robust capabilities.
What’s more, what everyone seems to be glossing over is the caveat that Professor Chalmers himself proffers in the article:
“For now, though, China would still be out-matched qualitatively in a ‘straight fight’ with the UK in an equidistant location (the south Atlantic? The Gulf?), and would be unable to mobilise a force big enough to outweigh this quality gap.”
Forgive me, but since when did the Chinese resolve to fight away from their sphere of influence? Why on Earth would the Chinese be picking a fight with any power in the Atlantic or the Gulf? Is there even any evidence of the Chinese having a significant enough presence to threaten British forces in these areas? The answer is obviously “no.”
This is a fact that not only the United Kingdom, but also the United States will need to address, if they are to have any continued success in rebuffing Chinese revanchism: China is a great regional power. The base of Chinese power and influence is within the Asia-Pacific, specifically, Southeast Asia. It is in this region only where any conflict will break out between the UK (or the U.S.) and the People’s Republic of China. As such, Professor Chambers’ comparison is inaccurate.
Not to worry, though, Professor Chalmers offers a further caveat to his belief:
“China’s quantitative advantages would come into play in the event of a conflict in its own neighbourhood – and its qualitative weaknesses would be less important, though still significant. So my statement was never meant to imply that the UK could outmatch China off the latter’s own coastline.”
Not so fast. This statement—or, rather, admission—completely undercuts the argument that the article is making (that the British are still a great power with the military capability to defeat an up-and-coming power like China). Obviously, this is not the case, as evidenced by the above quote!
For all of the talk of British capabilities at “equidistant” warfare, the reality of the situation is that the British have little ability to exercise their will in Asia today. Whatever capabilities they have are due to the presence of allied states, such as Australia and the United States, facilitating British operations in this distant theater. Yet, American capabilities will be extremely constrained in the unfortunate event of an outbreak of war.
As such, I would expect British capabilities in the region—such as they are—to be negligible. The British military is inextricably tied to others powers, primarily the United States, to assist it in accomplishing long-range missions. This is not meant as an insult, it is merely a fact. The French and several other states are also reliant on the U.S. for logistical and intelligence support. The UK is not alone in this.
However, in the outbreak of hostilities with the Chinese, it will be the U.S. that is directly threatened. It will undoubtedly call upon all of its allies to assist in checking Chinese aggression. Although, it must be noted, that with China’s commitment to asymmetrical warfare, the traditional power projection capabilities of the U.S. military will be especially constrained in Southeast Asia should hostilities commence. As such, all of the quantitative factors that Professor Chalmers lists as working in the British favor will amount to nothing, as any conflict with China will be waged close to China’s shores.
Just look at how the United Kingdom has reacted to growing Chinese power. Rather than being threatened by it, the British have routinely sought to work with the People’s Republic of China. In 1997, the British famously fulfilled their century old agreement to hand back Hong Kong to the Chinese government. The British government is constantly seeking to increase its business interests with China—especially in the department of arms sales (though, to be sure, other European powers, such as France, take the cake for that wish). Lastly, former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government surprised the United States (as well as the Chinese) when the UK joined China’s alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (although, Britain was not the only American ally to have done this).
A greater question, then, should be posited: if China attacked the United States—or threatened to—would the British even have a willingness to aid their American allies? In this, I believe there is a far more interesting exploration. The British assumed that signing on with the Chinese infrastructure bank was in their interests—despite whatever blowback they may have suffered from their U.S. allies.
Most Europeans are ardent supporters of increased, amicable relations with China. Who’s to say that Britain would even risk its tenuous military power on what, for them, would be a potentially losing prospect? I suspect that the British may be far more hesitant to become involved in a conflict with China than Pentagon war planners realize. What’s more, despite the European Geostrategy assessment that the UK constituted a “global power,” it must be noted that, as it stands, the British capacity to wage war close to Chinese territory is limited, to say the least.
“Although equipped with mostly modern and effective vessels, this does not mitigate for severely reduced numbers. However good a naval unit may be, it cannot be in 2 places at once, a particular problem for a navy with global ambition.” – Taken from savetheroyalnavy.org
One more point on the subject of quantifying British military power: the article asserts that the Chinese government does their own quantification of global military power. This is called the “Comprehensive National Power (CNP)” assessment. The assessment not only looks at the straight-up military aspects of a given state, but it also analyzes a country’s cultural and economic power and aggregates it all together to form the CNP assessment. (As a brief aside, the article erroneously claims that there is no antecedent in either Western of Communist tradition to the Chinese CNP. This is simply wrong. The Soviet Union constantly fretted over what they referred to as the “Correlation of Forces”, which is quite similar to the Chinese CNP assessment). According to the article, the Chinese themselves view the U.S., the UK, Russia, France, and Germany as all ranking far higher than China.
But, don’t let this notion fool you into believing that Britain truly is superior to the Chinese militarily. Indeed, on a whole host of issues the Chinese view themselves as being at a disadvantage—everything from global climate treaties to nuclear armaments—the Chinese gleefully bask in their purported weakness as a means of lulling their rivals into a false sense of security.
Do not fall for this trick. The Chinese may not spend as much on their military and they may not have the global reach of other, rival states, but what they do spend their money on is the development of technology and tactics that are capable of positively changing the strategic environment toward their favor in their neighborhood. The Chinese, right now, do not care much for global power. They care about regional control. Even as the article states, the Chinese concentration on their immediate region will change over time. It will change to a more global perspective once the Chinese government believes that it has effectively ensured its dominance of its region. Every great power in history has done this, from Rome to the United States.
This is nothing new.
The sad fact is that for decades, the United Kingdom has been a power in decline. Following the Second World War, it lost its empire. Since then, the UK has continually lost the influence and military capabilities that accompanied their empire. Now, they are mid-level power in the world. The British military is a small and potent force. However, as it stands, it simply does not have the capability to conduct the kind of long-range operations needed to effectively rebuff the Chinese in their own region. If China ever tried to attack the British Isles, yes, the British military would clean the Chinese clocks. But this is not likely to happen (at least not any time soon). So looking at British capabilities compared to Chinese capabilities under such circumstances is not very helpful.
The ability of the British military to “punch above its weight” is a result entirely of the British relying on American power to buttress its own capabilities. Whether speaking of Britain’s involvement in NATO or their presence in places like Diego Garcia, the British operate there with the assistance of the far more powerful American military. If a conflict with the Chinese were to break out, the U.S. military would have its hands full and would be fighting just to retain access to the region in all probability. Under such circumstances, the British military would find itself unable to bring any power whatsoever to bear against the Chinese.
“Overall the RN has some great capabilities with much good kit in the pipeline, but it lacks critical mass, has its eggs in a few very expensive baskets and is inadequately resourced for its current commitments, never mind the unexpected.” – Former UK Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond
It is true that the new government in Britain is insisting on increasing the country’s military capabilities. Serious investments into the Royal Navy are underway. By 2020, the British hope to have their aircraft carrier capabilities restored—albeit nominally. The British believe that this will be the start of a new trend of revitalization for their country’s military.
I hope they are right.
The United States needs a strong British partner on the world stage. However, given the political realities consuming Europe right now and the fallout from Brexit—as well as the serious shift in the British electorate’s thinking on global affairs—I will remain skeptical of Britain’s military capabilities outside of its own sphere of influence (or, rather, outside of operations wherein NATO or the U.S. are supporting them).
Regardless of this, however, the article in question is wrong to assert that the British military could defeat China. It might with considerable assistance from the U.S. and other Western states, but on its own, no, the British military could not defeat the Chinese military—particularly if the British are forced to fight the Chinese in Asia (which, they undoubtedly would have to).