The UK’s Place in the World: Strategic Industries, China, and Sovereignty | Daniel Evans
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 autarchy, 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.