Illustration: Craig Stephens
Gal Luft
Gal Luft

Britain’s delusions of grandeur increase risk of armed conflict

  • Going to the edge and risking world peace is a prerogative of a superpower – not a middle power like Britain
  • Russia and China will show much less tolerance for Royal Navy incursions into what they believe to be their waters than for the much more powerful US Navy
Last month, the British Royal Navy’s HMS Defender got into an unpleasant encounter with the Russian military off the coast of Crimea as it was sailing through the Black Sea. The Russians reportedly fired warning shots, and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of the Defender. Fortunately, the incident ended without a scratch.
Britain never hid the intention behind the voyage. It does not recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea and therefore it is “wholly appropriate” for it to sail in what it believes to be Ukrainian waters, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. Britain is “sticking up for our values”.

The foray into the Black Sea was not about the right of “innocent passage”. It was a provocation. Why else would there be a BBC television camera crew and a Daily Mail reporter on board the Defender if not for showing the British people how their government is standing up to Russia?

Now a potentially bigger crisis is looming on the horizon, this time involving China. The British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth accompanied by two destroyers – the Defender being one of them – two frigates, a nuclear-powered submarine, a tanker and a logistics ship are making their way to the South China Sea to “stick up for British values” in one of the world’s most contested waterways.

Hopefully this excursion will also end without harm. But what if it doesn’t? What if, intentionally or by miscalculation, British and Chinese vessels collide, a ship is sunk, a plane is downed or a sailor drowns? What will Johnson do then? Declare war on China?


Britain’s new aircraft carrier joins Nato exercises ahead of Indo-Pacific voyage

Britain’s new aircraft carrier joins Nato exercises ahead of Indo-Pacific voyage
Will Nato invoke Article 5, which states that an armed attack against a member shall be considered an attack against them all, when the alliance does not even have an Indo-Pacific doctrine in place?
One can sympathise with Britain’s resentment of China for eroding democracy in its former colony of Hong Kong. Less so, however, when it comes to meddling in parts of the world thousands of kilometres from its coasts to help reassert the West’s global leadership against the challenge of China and Russia.

Going to the edge and risking world peace is a prerogative of a superpower, not a middle power – and a middle power is exactly what Britain is.

Since leaving the European Union, Britain has been trying to brand itself as a defender of the democratic world, champion of human rights and custodian of the high seas. Its recently published “ Global Britain” vision pledged to increase its arsenal of nuclear arms, become a “science and tech superpower by 2030” and lead the world in tackling climate change.


UK parliament declares Uygurs suffering ‘genocide’ in China’s Xinjiang

UK parliament declares Uygurs suffering ‘genocide’ in China’s Xinjiang
But the picture is less flattering behind these delusions of grandeur. The United Kingdom is a declining power, confused about its post-Brexit identity, struggling to maintain its union against growing Scottish nationalism and facing threats of domestic terrorism, poverty and bouts of Covid-19. This is not a country that can take on China or Russia, let alone both.
The realisation that Britain is punching above its weight has already unsettled European leaders. Despite the show of unity displayed last month at the Group of 7 and Nato summits about the need to protect the rules-based international order from authoritarianism and revisionism, Europe lacks the bandwidth to pick fights with Russia and China. It is certainly not willing to play a supporting role in Johnson’s campaign to make Britain great again.

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The Biden administration, on the other hand, seems happy with Johnson performing dangerous stunts. Why endanger American sailors and airmen when the British volunteer to do it for you? But the Biden administration is increasing the risk of armed conflict by condoning British adventurism in the South China Sea.

Russia and China are far less deterred by the UK than they are by the United States. They will show much less tolerance for Royal Navy incursions into what they believe to be their waters than for the much more powerful US Navy.

US President Joe Biden gestures at British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as European Council President Charles Michel, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi look on at the G7 meeting Cornwall, England, on June 11. Photo: AP

In other words, the risk of armed conflict is higher when a middle power faces a superpower than when two superpowers face each other. If something goes wrong in the South China Sea, the crisis will not stop at 10 Downing Street. It will land at the White House’s doorstep, and Washington will be forced to come to the rescue of its junior partner or lose international credibility.

This is not the first time the “ special relationship” between the US and the UK put the world at risk. Johnson is to Biden what Tony Blair was to George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq.

In 2003, it was Blair who validated America’s shaky intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and who encouraged Bush to invade Iraq, causing one of the worst calamities of the 21st century. Now it is Johnson who is not only reinforcing Washington’s hardest impulses on China and Russia but who is actually fanning the flames.

Britain ruled the waves for generations, but it no longer does. Furthermore, Crimea and Taiwan are not the Falklands. If Johnson wants to restore Britain’s greatness, he should recall the words of his most admired predecessor Winston Churchill: “The price of greatness is responsibility.”

Gal Luft is co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and professor at Ostim Technical University