Why Britain must counter the revisionists.

This article was contributed to the UK Defence Journal by James Rogers and James Thorp. James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme and James Thorp is a Research Assistant, both at the Henry Jackson Society.

Sun Tzu wrote that “supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Indeed, defence is not just about the tangible –  navies, air forces, armies, or even cyber forces – but is also about shaping and reshaping narratives, discourse and perception.

Better than their counterparts in democratic nations, contemporary strategic theorists in authoritarian, revisionist regimes – such as Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – appreciate Sun Tzu’s ideas. They have started to develop increasingly sophisticated ways to discredit foreign views that they find distasteful or antithetical, while simultaneously replacing them with messages of their own. The PRC recently struck the UK with such an offensive.

On the 11th of February, Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Defence, gave a speech on ‘Transforming Defence’ to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). In his speech, he stated that the UK must be ready to take “action” against “those who flout international law…to shore up the global system of rules and standards on which our security and our prosperity depends.”

He also announced that “the first operational mission of HMS Queen Elizabeth will include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region. Making Global Britain a reality.”

The PRC latched onto these announcements, many of them relatively mundane and included also in last year’s National Security Capability Review and Modernising Defence Programme.

Just after the Defence Secretary’s speech, the PRC was reported to have announced that it would cancel proposed trade talks between Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Hu Chunhua, the Vice-Premier of the PRC. Much speculation mounted in the British media as to whether this was true, particularly given a statement from a spokesperson from HM Treasury stating that “no trip was ever announced or confirmed.”

Speculation was not helped by an ostensibly pre-recorded intervention by George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was broadcast on the Week on Westminster on BBC Radio 4 on 16 February where he stated – surely understanding the implications of his choice of words – that the Defence Secretary was “engaging in gunboat diplomacy of a quite old-fashioned kind” (a term that often carries historical baggage in the UK). In opposition to the British government’s more comprehensive stance, Mr Osborne went on to explain that the only way to “deliver” in relation to the PRC was through “engagement”, for which he expressed his admiration.

In subsequent reports by the Financial Times, The Independent, The Guardian, The National and the Daily Telegraph, the former Chancellor’s comments about “gunboat diplomacy”, the alleged cancellation of trade talks, and the inaccurate focus on the South China Sea, were all repeated without question. For example, the Financial Times piece from 15 February – co-authored by the same reporter who previously interviewed the former Chancellor for the BBC – described “the Pacific region” as “China’s backyard”, despite the fact that the UK has also its own territories and interests there.

Beyond the fact that elements of the British media covered the story from a de facto pro-PRC standpoint, it is here that Beijing seized on the domestic debate to reshape the narrative, ostensibly to deflect attention from its own revisionist activity in the South China Sea.

This is evident by how, subsequently, Liu Xiaoming, the PRC’s Ambassador to the UK, intervened with forceful and calculated commentaries in the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, on the 20 and 26 February, respectively. Both of the Ambassador’s interventions accused Mr Williamson of engaging in ‘gunboat diplomacy’; both accused the Defence Secretary of “resurrecting” the “anachronistic” mentality of the Cold War; both focused on future British activities in the South China Sea instead of the vast Pacific region (to which Mr Williamson referred); and both warned the UK that its economic relations with the PRC would be at risk if it continued to challenge Chinese perspectives and intentions.

What does this show? It shows that the PRC is attempting to influence internal UK debates by exploiting domestic divides and reinforcing narratives that discredit the British government, while simultaneously replacing Britain’s legitimate perspectives with its own. London needs to wake up to this new reality because the ideas and institutions it has created and underpinned around the world with its allies – the so-called rules-based international order” – are being challenged like no time since the height of the Cold War.

Undoubtedly, Britain’s open society makes it difficult to counter foreign attempts to reshape British narratives. UK legislation to constrain the domestic media would only backfire, gradually changing the country into the kind of society favoured by its authoritarian competitors. That said, as the world becomes more contested and volatile, British politicians and the media must escape from their myopic focus on internal political squabbles. If they fail, the ground on which they are fighting is in danger of being removed from beneath their feet by external revisionist forces.

Preventing revisionist regimes – like the PRC and Russia – from ‘hijacking’ existing domestic disputes and divides to further their own agendas will involve more than a passive approach. Like Sun Tzu counseled, the UK should push back. By empowering the BBC World Service and the British Council, Britain should project its own narratives around the world more vigorously. Equally, through more clandestine information offensives, the UK should begin targeting its revisionist competitors to (re)shape their narratives.