China is preparing for war, and Britain is flailing

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi poses for a photograph after talks with James Cleverly
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi poses for a photograph after talks with James Cleverly

In unambiguous language, Frank Kendall, Joe Biden’s secretary of the air force, said last week that “the intelligence couldn’t be clearer. Whatever its actual intentions may be, I could not say. But China is preparing for a war, and specifically for a war with the United States.”

Kendall is not a clandestine China hawk who somehow infiltrated the Biden defence department’s top ranks. He served at senior levels in the Obama administration, returning to the private sector after Donald Trump’s election. Significantly for the UK’s ongoing debate about China, Kendall’s speech accurately reflects an emerging, bipartisan American consensus about Beijing’s threat to the global West.

This menace is hardly confined to military affairs, but extends to politics and economics, as well. We have awakened to this threat at varying speeds over the past decade. In numerous cases, we have been dangerously slow in appreciating the magnitude and breadth of the risks.

In the US, for example, Australia and New Zealand rang alarm bells about the gravity of Huawei and ZTE controlling fifth-generation telecommunications, based on their extensive analyses of what these arms of the Chinese state were up to.

Thereafter, London and Washington consulted closely, having tough sessions on difficult economic and political issues before we emerged with largely congruent views. Of course, the hard work to change the approach of an EU becoming even more dependent on China’s market than on Russian oil and gas lay ahead.

So it has been surprising to see the UK choking on characterising Beijing as a “threat”, clinging to the soothing-but-poisonous term “competitor” (not that Biden’s team has previously done much better). Most surprising has been the bended-knee approach of many parliamentarians following the arrest of an alleged Chinese spy.

Generally, countries spy mostly on their enemies because they pose the greatest dangers. Ask the Chinese Communists. FBI director Chris Wray calls Beijing’s espionage threat “the challenge of our generation”. Canada has just announced a substantial inquiry into Chinese efforts to subvert its democracy.

If the US and Canada are targets, does anyone seriously believe the UK is not? Since China’s threat is to the whole of society, blindness among the political leadership is dangerous across the board. It is the Government’s duty to protect its citizens by warning them of foreign dangers that individuals, businesses and private associations are simply unable to detect.

The harsh truth is that China has been waging economic war against the West for decades: stealing intellectual property; pursuing mercantilist policies within supposedly free-trade institutions like the World Trade Organisation; and insulating its critical domestic markets from foreign competition, while exploiting Western openness as our officials stand idly by. Attention is also turning to the failure of Western regulators to scrutinise financial information from Chinese firms with anything like the intensity they apply to their own domestic firms.

The only effective way to deal with this long-standing Chinese evasion and opaqueness is a Nato-like common approach among free societies, starting with a common view of the threat.

We often hear from Beijing’s Western defenders that China has something we need for priorities like climate change. But these are frequently the worried arguments of business executives who have invested too heavily in China, or whose supply networks have become too dependent on the country, and who for years didn’t understand that the Soviet Union’s collapse did not mean “the end of history” and the disappearance of international political risk.

Fortunately, Western naivete, indolence and incompetence may be changing. Also announced last week was quite possibly the world’s largest deposit of lithium, critical for battery-powered cars, located – wait for it – along the Nevada-Oregon border. In January, Sweden announced the discovery of what could be the biggest deposit of rare earths in Europe, undercutting another dominant Chinese position in the extraction of such minerals, vital in the high-tech and communications industries.

All this shows that correctly understanding China’s whole-of-society threat, and becoming resolutely committed to defeating it, means the West can prevail against the 21st century’s existential threat. By contrast, ignoring the palpable reality facing us for fear of agitating the Middle Kingdom’s Communist emperors will ensure our defeat. Franklin Roosevelt had it right when he said, “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself”.

John Bolton is a former US national security adviser

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.