The UK’s Place in the World: Strategic Industries, China, and Sovereignty

This article was originally published on 17th November 2021.

The Brexit-leading Conservative government wants to back up the talk of the referendum campaign. Now that the UK has Brexited there’s a practical need to set a plan of action and follow it. A lot of intellectual work was taken care of by just following whatever the EU position was.

Global Britain, sovereignty, trade deals, etc., OK. What’s the plan? Some of that’s answered implicitly. Elizabeth Truss as Secretary of State for International Trade was busy doing trade deals. AUKUS speaks to diplomatic, defence, and geographical focus. COP26 – the UK is supposed to make its name on climate stuff. OK.

This is what the Prime Minister says the plan is. Some key points: greater engagement in the world, securing the UK’s status as a “Science and Tech Superpower by 2030,” and a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific.” This is still getting ahead of itself.

A recent announcement about an old deal, about an investigation into the Nvidia takeover of Arm (originally a British microchip design company, taken over by the Japanese SoftBank) is a good enough starting point for something to think about.

The Cameron and May governments were very permissive of a lot of foreign investments and takeovers e.g. Chinese nuclear power projects, Huawei and 5G, invitation into the Northern Powerhouse. A lot of people are still angry at the sale of state assets under Right to Buy to British people. Why does the sale of much, much larger British companies/assets to foreign interests provoke almost nothing? What about foreign ownership in the housing market, for that matter?

At least the Johnson government has revisited some of these blunders. It also hasn’t put a complete stop to a lot else which contradicts its strategic review. For example, the Chinese takeover of British Steel, the Chinese takeover of the UK’s largest microchip producer, and the Chinese takeover of a major UK graphene producer. Sort yourselves out!

Strategic Industries and China

Start with making a proper assessment of the UK’s assets. What are you working with?

The Johnson government is promising to do a lot of things differently to the Cameron and May governments. When William the Conqueror took over as CEO, he did an inventory check, right down to the kinds of cheese in England.

Napoleon was notoriously obsessed with information.

In the autumn of 1811, the peak of Napoleon’s empire (has France been as well-governed since?) the emperor visited 40 cities in 22 days. This is despite losing three and a half days of travel to gales and floods. He would prevent mayors from giving great speeches and instead ask them questions. Population, death, revenues, forestry, tolls, municipal rates, conscription, civil and criminal lawsuits. Even about how many sentences passed by mayors were annulled by the Court of Cassation, and whether mayors had found means to provide suitable lodgings for rectors.

Would Mayor Johnson have fared well under Napoleon’s questioning? Prime Minister Johnson? Sure, why not? The information Napoleon was looking for gave him clues about the state of the empire, its operational effectiveness, happiness of its citizens, its direction, its capabilities, and what he could draw on. What are the revealing questions you could ask today?

A country’s strategic industries are certainly different from the 1800s.

The pandemic alone should’ve taught the UK that the entire west relies heavily on China for production of a lot of basic medicines. That’s concerning. It certainly relies on China for a lot of manufacturing of basic but important medical equipment too. Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta virtual/augmented reality news is also something to think about.

How comfortable is the UK with the idea of China controlling a lot of technology manufacturing, and easy access to intellectual secrets/innovations?

China is very good at controlling actual reality let alone a virtual one. The China-Taiwan tensions keep brewing. China’s been threatening Taiwan that its military won’t stand a chance if it invades. China is threatening that any outside interference will mean paying a price. Meanwhile, the world relies on Taiwan for semiconductors which go in everything. Xi promises that China and Taiwan will be reunited.

How is Hong Kong doing?

Strategic industries are no longer just about simpler things like coal and steel production for tanks and munitions. They’re also about the materials and methods of fourth and fifth generation warfare, like rare earth metals and this sort of thing.

It seems the Johnson government is at least a little but wiser to China.It’s hard to believe how cosy Cameron was prepared to get with Xi Jinping. They wanted to make Macclesfield (of all places!) the end point of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Have a look at this selfie. Cameron, soy-faced, submissively leaning in. Sergio Aguero’s having a great time, that’s fine. Xi looks like he’s holding his tongue. It’s not a meeting of peers. One has real power and the other doesn’t. This is a picture of the Emperor of China wondering how much longer he has to humour the Gap Yah guy. Is Cameron oblivious? If he is, he’s like that guy who thought he made friends with a wild Alaskan grizzly and got eaten. Does he understand what kind of animal he’s dealing with? Of course, Xi is a silly willy nilly old bear.

If Cameron wasn’t oblivious, was he just resigned to the idea of securing British comfort as a supplicant to China?

When did the west start calling Xi “President” and stop calling him “Chairman”? “Zhuxi” means “Chairman”. Xi is still “General Secretary” of the Chinese Communist Party, a title which originates with Stalin’s own role as General Secretary. That title has its own interesting history. Does “President” hide his shame? Why is the UK still sucking up to a communist by using a less embarrassing and false translation of his title?

Anyway, never mind China, what about everyone else?


The UK doesn’t need to pursue absolute autarky, but it will have to think about what its strategic industries are and how much control it wants over them for how much independence.

Alignment with the US-led order has been convenient for the UK’s comfort. Countries which don’t submit to the US (e.g., Russia, Iran, North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela), find themselves poorer and squeezed. They haven’t helped themselves either. The obvious exception is China. Is it too big? Did Nixon miscalculate? The US was supposed to be a military power, China an economic one. That unspoken deal doesn’t seem to be holding. That calculation is probably changing too for everyone else as the US becomes relatively weaker and China relatively stronger.

For now, easy prosperity clearly hasn’t been everything to every country. Not everyone follows the first rule of the Satanic bible. All hail GDP, the one true measure of successful government! Sovereignty means answering to nobody else, and that’s valuable too. It has also meant that these countries develop and control a lot of their own technology. Russia and China in particular. Though it’s also a US protectorate, Israel is notable too for its self-reliance and the level of independence that affords it, regionally, at least.

Can the UK become a “Science and Tech Superpower” by 2030? 

For everything it would need to achieve that, how much does it need to learn? How much of the basics does it need to relearn? Outsourced manufacturing and international, mobile academia are not a stable starting point. Knowledge fades with the people who have it, who today can move and work from anywhere.

What ties these people to the UK? What stops them from working for someone else?

The UK’s place in the world will be affected by how much it can bring under its own control.

What’s the plan?

Does anyone have any confidence that there’s any one person in the government who properly understands 1) the UK’s own state of affairs, 2) how that sits internationally, 3) what the reasonable goals are, 4) how to work toward them, and 5) has the power to make it happen?

Until the UK has that it is getting ahead of itself in any discussion about what its place in the world should be.

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AUKUS and The Path Towards an Anglosphere Bloc

In 2023, the international order seems completely up-ended. Moscow has reverted to imperialism with its invasion of Ukraine, China’s regime is unrelenting in its designs towards Taiwan and Iran is edging closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon. Three decades on since the end of the Cold War and it would seem that Western intentions for a peaceful world now lie in tatters. 

Yet we Westerners face our own set of problems. The UK remains more or less directionless on the world stage, its economy and reputation in freefall. On the continent, Hungary and Poland seem determined to stall EU centralisation efforts and the once ironclad relationship between Paris and Berlin appears to be weakening. Meanwhile, the US is mired in a state of total electoral chaos that one would normally associate with a banana republic. Perhaps the next leader of the free world will be running the show from a prison cell. At this point, who really knows?

Recent years have seen the UK, like the US, be radically transformed into a viscerally divided country. Although the polls seemingly indicate a majority now regret Brexit and would seek to reverse it, little thought has been given to how willing the British public would be to adopt the Euro or join Schengen – both of which Brussels would force upon us if we were to rejoin. Yet staunch Brexiteers haven’t exactly had much to offer us either. Since leaving, we’ve just about managed to re-secure the existing trade agreements we already had as an EU member and have joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – which is predicted to grow the UK economy by just 0.08% over the next decade. Evidently, any future success we will enjoy as an isolated, declining power remains very unclear. 

What is clear though is that the UK desperately needs bolder vision if it wants to drag itself out of the quagmire it is currently sinking into. It needs a new, invigorating national project that can unite its splintered political factions and galvanise support towards a stronger future. The UK has just exited one of the most successful blocs the world has seen, yet it may have already joined an even greater one – AUKUS. 

AUKUS – an acronym of its member countries of Australia, the UK and the US – was formed in 2021 to act as a deterrent to Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. As a military pact, its initial moves have been to assist Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines as well as to step up information sharing on AI, quantum and hypersonic technologies. 

Although originally hesitant about joining, New Zealand’s government has now expressed interest in becoming AUKUS’s fourth member, with Canada quickly following suit. The addition of these countries makes sense given that both have economic and geopolitical interests in the Pacific and equally view China as a threat. Furthermore, being members of the ‘Five-Eyes’ intelligence pact, neither would seek being shut out of any agreements involving information sharing. 

However, their compatibility with AUKUS goes beyond military and security concerns. With a shared democratic ethos and a common system of governance, AUKUS represents not just a strategic pact, but also a values-based alliance uniting all of its members, including potential additions Canada and New Zealand. As such, the potential for AUKUS to welcome even broader collaboration seems apparent already.  

Proposals for stronger ties between the five countries are nothing new. By far the most popular concept to be imagined has been ‘CANZUK’. Yet another acronym for its member states, this would involve a hypothetical trade and cooperation bloc comprising all aforementioned countries – with the notable exception of the US. Focusing strictly on expanding economic, security and foreign-policy collaboration, its proponents dismiss the idea of any political union. Crucially, free movement would be implemented, however – just not the kind we associate with Schengen. For it would bar anyone with a criminal record, an infectious disease or those considered to be a national security risk. 

Its advocates certainly sell the CANZUK vision well. As they point out, with a population of at least 135 million and a combined GDP of over $6 trillion, CANZUK would be among the top four economic powers in the world. It would comprise an area of 18,187,210 km, making it larger than the Russian Federation. Moreover, with similar levels of development, the potential for the kind of one-sided migration occurring between poorer and affluent member states, as witnessed in the EU, would be minimised. It also helps that free-movement treaties are already in effect between some of these countries – notably the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement (TTTA) between Australia and New Zealand. 

Yet for all its great potential, proponents have glossed over one major problem – trade. Whilst these countries combined make up a significant chunk of the global economy, commerce among them is minimal. As of last year, the UK was New Zealand’s ninth largest trading partner, Canada’s fifth and Australia’s eighteenth. Similarly, Canada ranks low on trade with Australia and New Zealand and vice versa. However, what they each have in common are strong trade links with the US – ranking anywhere from first to third largest trading partner among them. For this reason alone, an Anglosphere bloc without the US does not make sense economically. 

This takes us neatly back to AUKUS – or more precisely, the need for its evolution. Embracing the aforementioned ideals of economic integration, foreign-policy coordination and the establishment of a common travel area would undoubtedly turbocharge AUKUS’s power and completely reshape global politics. The addition of Canada and New Zealand into the mix certainly aids this. AUKUS has already shown it is prepared to respond to a crisis, namely China. The looming threat of a Chinese-dominated century being the driving force behind a gradual transformation of AUKUS into an Anglosphere bloc should not be underestimated. Beijing’s potential to start to outpace the West economically, technologically and even militarily would naturally bring Australia, the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand into each other’s arms. 

Washington’s involvement would be vital for many reasons, including reducing the group’s dependency on trade with China, something that Australia has already declared it seeks to implement. Yet whilst the need for closer cooperation with a behemoth like the US is clear, it would be naïve to suggest that the US could afford to forgo such an arrangement. Indeed, the US needs the Anglosphere now more than ever. The initial reluctance of NATO members France and Germany to step up their support towards Ukraine and Macron’s comments about the EU distancing itself from American policy on China raises big concerns about Europe’s ability to commit to enforcing global security. 

The EU itself is riddled by infighting over immigration, enlargement and the contentious issue of ‘ever-closer union’, casting doubt on its survivability. In short, America cannot rely on Europe in the long-term. The EU’s lethargic reaction to the Ukraine crisis underlines this. With multiple, often clashing, foreign-policy objectives among its member states, the prospect of a united Europe, ready to take on the geopolitical challenges of the 21st century, looks remote. If it took the continent as long as it did to pull together and reinforce its eastern frontier against invasion from its most immediate adversary, Russia, then little hope can be expected from future interventions either.

Contrast this with the response from the UK and the US. Both were quick to provide Ukraine with military support, whilst France and Germany sat back and hoped a diplomatic solution would prevail. For Berlin and Paris, their economic ties with Moscow greatly weakened their resolve for a more direct response, to the ire of the Anglosphere as well as fellow EU member Poland. The US, like the UK, now has to accept that its partners on the European continent do not always share its economic or geopolitical interests, nor are they fully capable of putting theirs aside for a common cause. Again, this further highlights the necessity of AUKUS for the US – and in many ways, it renders its expansion into an official bloc more of an inevitability than a hypothetical concept. 

For the UK, the conclusion is self-evident. AUKUS is the only realistic option on the table for a directionless UK left out in the global cold. The alliance will continue to be crucial for the UK given our post-Brexit pivot to the Indo-Pacific. But the UK must push for something much larger than a military pact if it hopes to remain relevant in the 21st century. It must call for AUKUS’s expansion into a fully-fledged trade and cooperation bloc, encompassing the totality of the Anglosphere. There may well be push-back and the notion that this could happen overnight would be folly. Nevertheless, the UK will need to start somewhere if it wishes to shake off the Brexit blues. It must step up and begin to take charge of its destiny. 

Dreams of a return to the EU are just that – dreams. The mere political unpalatability of having to surrender our currency and control over our borders makes a return to the EU simply incompatible with most British voters. There would be no chance of a rebate over the UK’s financial contributions either. We would need to be all in, or stay out. Nor should we presume that Brussels will be eager to welcome back a country that so openly defied it, for fear of sparking similar exits. We could expect similar reactions from member states such as France, which twice vetoed the UK’s application to join back in the 1960s, as well as Spain, which would no doubt force us into concessions on Gibraltar. The UK must now accept this new relationship with the continent and simply move on.

AUKUS provides the UK with a chance to reinvent its beleaguered image, both at home and abroad. It paves a way out of the tangled forest of confusion and division over our place in the world and heralds a return to a more optimistic and confident UK. The economic benefits it would bring, combined with the chance to rekindle ties with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and repair our fractured ‘special relationship’ with the US, make it simply too good an opportunity to pass up. 

With the EU, Russia and China now having all put their cards on the table, the need for an official Anglosphere bloc has never been more immediate. All that is missing now is the willpower to make it happen. 

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How to contain an increasingly assertive China?

Tensions in the South China Sea are on the rise. The United States has just pledged to defend Philippine vessels if they are attacked over there, after Beijing and Manila blamed each other after a China Coast Guard ship fired water cannons at a Philippine boat. The incident may well be deliberately provoked by China to test the commitment of the United States in the region. 

A few weeks ago, a record-breaking number of Chinese warships were spotted in waters around Taiwan within a 24 hour period. This was followed by the unexplained firing of China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, a close ally of Chinese President Xi Xinping. In the same week, Taiwan held major military drills that simulated an invasion of the island, centred around defending vital beaches and airports.

This volatile mix of escalation and uncertainty is breeding a sense of anxiety for China’s regional neighbours who are all in tense dispute with China over its legally baseless claim to the entirety of the South China Sea – and all the vast mineral wealth beneath the waves. 

ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – could well play a role here. This is a political and economic union of 10 member states in Southeast Asia. With lingering fears of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan within the next five years, ASEAN nations must build stronger ties between themselves to act as a stable and unified counterweight to China. This would not only help to push back against Chinese aggression in their own waters, but also give support to Taiwan in any eventual outbreak of war. Furthermore, it would alleviate the burden on the United States.

If ASEAN partners do not present a united front on territorial disputes in the South China Sea then the door will be left open for China to isolate certain nations and coerce them into giving in to Chinese demands. Given its rather particular interpretation of international boundaries, it is only a matter of time before China engages in legal warfare to challenge international boundaries, to the extent it has not already. 

Malaysia already experienced something along these lines, albeit not coming from China. Last year, a French court ordered it to pay $14.9 billion to the heirs of the last sultan of Sulu, a part of Malaysia whose sovereign enjoyed compensation from the British when they ruled over the area, which is resource-rich. The newly formed Malaysian state simply continued to pay the heirs an annual stipend of $5,300, until in 2013, following an armed incursion from the Philippines by a group claiming to be the heirs. The French court decision to rule in the way it has is highly controversial, to say at least. The arbitrator who issued the award in the case, Gonzalo Stampa, has now even been slapped with criminal charges in Spain over his role. 

In sum, even internationally well-accepted boundaries do not seem safe from legal challenges. Looking at how China has been treating Lithuania, after it was deemed too friendly towards Taiwan, Asian countries should not exclude that the increasingly assertive Chinese state tries to turn courts into an extension of its foreign policy domain.

It would be foolish to underestimate the chances of war in Asia breaking out. Decades of smaller scale lopsided conflicts have already blindsided us to the possibility of large-scale devastating conflicts and we can’t allow that to happen again.

One only needs to look at how Russia took advantage of western dithering to launch the largest war this century which has killed thousands and displaced millions across the European continent. The war in Ukraine is predictably capturing the much of the West’s attention given the acute geopolitical headache it poses, but this is allowing China to escalate tensions around Taiwan and the South China Sea under the radar.

A potential war between China and Taiwan is likely to draw in The United States and make Russia’s war against Ukraine look almost trivial in comparison – impoverishing billions and bring ruin to the wider region.

Indonesia has been singled out as one of the ASEAN partners unwilling to fully show solidarity in opposition to China’s territorial stances when it comes to the South China Sea, but it is not the only one. ASEAN trading nations should take notice how even Germany, always wary of conflict and probably the most diplomatically minded of Western nations, has decided to send two warships to the Indo-Pacific in 2024, repeating what it has already done in 2021. 

Germany’s purpose is to make clear to China that pursuing good trade ties should not mean allowing just anything. According to German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, the aim of this move is to demonstrate that Germany is “dedicated to the protection of the rules-based international order that we all signed up to and which we all should benefit from – be it in the Mediterranean, in the Bay of Bengal or in the South China Sea.” 

Those ASEAN countries that are still on the fence should take note.

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The Chinese Revolution – Good Thing, Bad Thing?

This is an extract from the transcript of The Chinese Revolution – Good Thing, Bad Thing? (1949 – Present). Do. The. Reading. and subscribe to Flappr’s YouTube channel!

“Tradition is like a chain that both constrains us and guides us. Of course, we may, especially in our younger years, strain and struggle against this chain. We may perceive faults or flaws, and believe ourselves or our generation to be uniquely perspicacious enough to radically improve upon what our ancestors have made – perhaps even to break the chain entirely and start afresh.

Yet every link in our chain of tradition was once a radical idea too. Everything that today’s conservatives vigorously defend was once argued passionately by reformers of past ages. What is tradition anyway if not a compilation of the best and most proven radical ideas of the past? The unexpectedly beneficial precipitate or residue retrieved after thousands upon thousands of mostly useless and wasteful progressive experimentation.

To be a conservative, therefore, to stick to tradition, is to be almost always right about everything almost all the time – but not quite all the time, and that is the tricky part. How can we improve society, how can we devise better governments, better customs, better habits, better beliefs without breaking the good we have inherited? How can we identify and replace the weaker links in our chain of tradition without totally severing our connection to the past?

I believe we must begin from a place of gratitude. We must hold in our minds a recognition that life can be, and has been, far worse. We must realize there are hard limits to the world, as revealed by science, and unchangeable aspects of human nature, as revealed by history, religion, philosophy, and literature. And these two facts in combination create permanent unsolvable problems for mankind, which we can only evade or mitigate through those traditions we once found so constraining.

To paraphrase the great G.K. Chesterton: “Before you tear down a fence, understand why it was put up in the first place.” I cannot fault a single person for wishing to make a better world for themselves and their children, but I can admonish some persons for being so ungrateful and ignorant, they mistake tradition itself as the cause of every evil under the sun. Small wonder then that their hairbrained alternatives routinely overlook those aspects of society without which it cannot function or perpetuate itself into the future.

And there are other things tied up in tradition besides moral guidance or the management of collective affairs. Tradition also involves how we delve into the mysteries of the universe; how we elevate the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing into artforms unto themselves; how we represent truth and beauty and locate ourselves within the vast swirling cosmos beyond our all too brief and narrow experience.

It is miraculous that we have come as far as we have. And at any given time, we can throw that all away, through profound ingratitude and foolish innovations. A healthy respect for tradition opens the door to true wisdom. A lack of respect leads only to novelty worship and malign sophistry.

Now, not every tradition is equal, and not everything in a given tradition is worth preserving, but like the Chinese who show such great deference to the wisdom of their ancestors, I wish more in the West would admire or even learn about their own.

Like the Chinese, we are the legatees of a glorious tradition – a tradition that encompasses the poetry of Homer, the curiosity of Eratosthenes, the integrity of Cato, the courage of Saint Boniface, the vision of Michelangelo, the mirth of Mozart, the insights of Descartes, Hume, and Kant, the wit of Voltaire, the ingenuity of Watt, the moral urgency of Lincoln and Douglas.

These and many more are responsible for the unique tradition into which we have been born. And it is this tradition, and no other, which has produced those foundational ideas we all too often take for granted, or assume are the defaults around the world. I am speaking here of the freedom of expression, of inquiry, of conscience. I am speaking of the rule of law, and equality under the law. I am speaking of inalienable rights, of trial by jury, of respect for women, of constitutional order and democratic procedure. I am speaking of evidence based reasoning and religious tolerance.

Now those are all things I wouldn’t give up for all the tea in China. You can have Karl Marx. We’ll give you him. But these are ours. They are the precious gems of our magnificent Western tradition, and if we do nothing else worthwhile in our lives, we can at least safeguard these things from contamination, or annihilation, by those who would thoughtlessly squander their inheritance.”

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