Author and freelance writer. Sometimes in London more often elsewhere




Persuasive writing


By James Maclaren, Nov 17 2020 08:50AM

Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was interviewed for BBC radio and became one of a line of pundits who, in the light of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory, cast doubt on the future of the Special Relationship widely believed to exist between the United States and the United Kingdom and which just as widely, particularly in the aftermath of every U.S. election campaigns, is just as widely dismissed as dead and buried.

Is this true? Is there a special relationship? and will the misty-eyed affection President-Elect Biden has for his (admittedly distant) Irish past mean that the UK is pushed out into the Washington cold as the Administration cosies up to closer friends in Paris and Berlin? Many have said for years that a ‘special relationship’, born of the wartime alliance and formed out of common cause in the fight against fascism has not existed for some time.

Yet, if that is the case why do people, who presumably don’t believe it exists, keep predicting its death? Is it just wishful thinking? How on earth did it ever survive the catastrophe of British misadventure in Suez to allow just six years later the purchase of the Polaris strategic missile system; limp through the failure of Britain to support American misadventure in Vietnam, only a few short years later to receive the offer of an U.S. aircraft carrier, plus much more, in its campaign to restore sovereignty to the Falkland Islands. How did it stand together to carry the heavy burdens of unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and crises in Syria, Libya and elsewhere.

Those who predict a few election remarks about a piece of UK domestic legislation and a romantic affection for an Irish poet will see the relationship between Britain and the U.S. put into the deep freeze will be sadly disappointed. Seven decades of geopolitical cooperation have seen far worse than that and Mrs Thatcher’s description of the ‘… blood, language, culture and values’ that bind the two countries remains true. During one White House administration the UK is described by those with prejudice as the U.S.’ poodle, in the next the same critics talk of a washed-up country of no interest to Washington. These shallow pronouncements mischievously mistake a proper understanding of what the special relationship is.

So, what is this ‘special relationship’ and is it threatened?

Americans are two things: sentimental & hard-nosed. In the business of politics, they use sentimentality to get elected. Once elected they use their hard-nosed instincts to get business done. And when ‘stuff’ needs doing they look for allies they can trust and upon whom they can rely for more than words.

There are four instruments of national power: diplomacy, information, military (and intelligence) and economic (DIME). Combined and wielded in the national interest, the UK is far ahead in the global rankings of all others with the exception of the U.S. It is in the military instrument of power, however, where the key to understanding the U.S./UK special relationship is found.

Outside of the inner compound of the U.S. Central Command headquarters (HQ CENTCOM) is a small town of portacabins in which are the offices of dozens of liaison officers drawn from many allied nations. They get no closer to the heart of decision making. Only the UK planning staff sits embedded inside the operations and intelligence complexes. Even German and French officers are asked to leave sensitive meetings denying them access to UK/U.S. plans and intentions. GCHQ the UK signals intelligence and the NSA, its U.S. equivalent are the only two agencies capable of global signals interception and they operate as two sides of the same coin, dividing the world up and sharing the product between themselves with few restrictions.

The UK still operates sixteen overseas military bases, a total second only to the U.S. many of which are used regularly as part of the U.S. critical deployment infrastructure. The F-22 is a highly secret 5th generation strike aircraft with technology so sensitive that foreign military sales are banned by Congress, yet there is a Royal Air Force pilot in one of the operational cockpits. Fifteen percent of every F-35 built is made of British components while the procurement of two Queen Elizabeth super aircraft carriers will provide much needed relief for the stretched carrier resources of the United States Navy. An F-15 circling the skies above Syria is likely to be refuelled by a Royal Air Force tanker, while special forces teams on the ground conduct joint missions overseen by a joint headquarters supported by strike and rescue assets from either nation.

This level of investment, integration, understanding, shared toil and above all trust is too valuable to disown. It has not been the words of presidents and prime ministers who create a ‘special relationship’, it is the continued actions of their military and intelligence services.

U.S. presidents come and they go. Pundits and the media are welcome to their political theatre. Meantime, where it counts, in the often hostile and complex arena of military operations and where the two countries cooperate when others won’t, the special relationship of seven decades and fifteen presidents is doing just fine.

By James Maclaren, Jul 24 2020 08:32AM

Indian and Chinese forces clash across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which separates the two countries armed forces on the Indian border with Chinese Tibet, stirring up concern that a larger confrontation in this desolate but beautiful wilderness is possible. Is this latest scuffle just local posturing or a precursor to something more serious?

Pangong Pso is a beautiful highland grass lake set deep high in the Himalayas. It freezes in winter and at 14,000 feet its relative inaccessibility makes it a remarkable area of beauty that qualifies it as an area of scientific interest for its flora, fauna and wildlife that should draw attention from around the world. Unfortunately, through its waters run the LAC, drawn up between Indian and Chinese forces after their short conflict in the region in 1962. The central part of the deep lake and the shores beyond are disputed territory across which Indian and Chinese soldiers can glare at each other.

Both sides possess a different understanding of where the LAC runs. What is agreed is that Chinese forces occupy positions that fall within territory claimed by India. Both sides patrol and border incursions are regular occurrences, although only India reports such incidents. While the area has been the subject of border confrontations since the ’62 Indo-Sino war, the latest confrontation is troubling. The latest incident which took place from the 5th May involved around 250 soldiers and amounted to fistfights and rock-throwing. Hardly serious stuff from the two largest nuclear-armed armed forces in the world. But the dispute has spread, including to areas where the LAC is agreed, such as the Galwan Valley over 200 miles away. Here, China objects to road infrastructure being built by the Indian side while India objects to Chinese tented encampments into which it has bought military reinforcements. Reports say that up to 5,000 Chinese troops have been drafted into the region.

Previous stand-offs have been resolved mostly by local commanders with mutual withdrawal and comradely good behaviour, however, this situation has been elevated to the political level and the question is raised as to why there is an increase in confrontation now? Interpreting China’s intentions in the opaque policy that covers the Indo-China border is challenging and although Beijing may just be engaging in some provocative probing, now would seem an inopportune time to be picking quarrels with neighbours.

One theory is that the timing has little to do with a disputed border and more to do with the possibility of India assuming a leadership role in the World Health Organisation (WHO). This appointment would provide opportunity for geopolitical mischief as global pressure for a probe into the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic are considered. Some border dispute pressure is a simple way of Beijing reminding its Indian neighbour to watch its step.

It is also possible that the extensive infrastructure building programmes of both sides including bridges, roads and underground bunkers may be responsible for the heightened tension. India’s attempts to limit and disrupt the Chinese security infrastructure advantage would bring opportunity for border friction. However, this does not account for the timing of the latest incidents.

A further theory is that India has responsibility for stirring up the latest aggression, undertaken perhaps to remind the United States of its support for India in the territorial dispute with China. Since U.S. support for India in the ’62 conflict the strategic ties between the two countries have deepened. The U.S. largely supports the Indian territorial claims, and should China attempt to engage in hostilities across the LAC then it may be viewed as an attack on India rather than a remote skirmish. Some nip and tuck on the Himalayan border is a useful way of reminding the U.S. of its allegiances, especially when that country’s resources are spread far and wide.

Washington is a source of intelligence for India in its Himalayan border wrestle with China. Certainly, Delhi would have an interest in strengthening intelligence links reducing the advantage in Military forces that China on paper enjoys. In return Washington may well press for more active forward engagement from India on issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea. The LAC dispute is a useful lever to strengthen further the U.S.-India strategic relationship and give Beijing pause for thought.

It is possible that cool heads in Delhi and Beijing will prevail and that the uneasy but stable relationships between the two sides will resume. Nevertheless, the slow but steady build-up of military infrastructure and the connection to wider Indo-Pacific policy serves as a reminder, that these confrontations have the ability to escalate quickly and not in a good way.

By James Maclaren, Jul 24 2020 08:11AM

THE U.S. AND CHINA continue to wrestle over the South China Sea. Should both sides step back and take stock.

In early May the U.S. announced that all of its forward-deployed submarines based in Guam were conducting contingency response operations in the Philippines Sea. This unusual announcement on the normally highly secret operations of submarines was the latest in a series of maritime and air deployments across the Asia-Pacific region that are designed to challenge China’s growing maritime capability.

As part of this stand-off the U.S. and China continue to glare at one other across the South China Sea. Each remote territorial consolidation by China in support of its nine-dash line territorial claim is met with an assertion of U.S military power and while action-counter action ebbs and flows the regional temperature gently heats. Meanwhile China’s regional neighbors and rivals watch nervously, mindful of their own claims and conscious of the realities of their various dependencies on Beijing and Washington.

China views the South China Sea as a natural shield for its national security. It contains vital sea lanes of communication that it believes are vulnerable to U.S disruption during a conflict. Importantly, it provides relative sanctuary for its nuclear submarines to launch a retaliatory second-strike to meet what it believes is a credible Washington option of striking first.

The U.S. accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea to gain regional hegemony. It justifies its own military activity as developing deterrent capability, which will prevent China from bullying its rival claimants to the region’s natural resources of offshore oil and gas.

In regional military terms, the US still maintains an advantage over China and Washington seems determined to ramp up its presence to preserve and extend this this situation. The U.S. justifies its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) by suggesting that China is threatening commercial navigation upon which all nations depend for their economic survival. There is little evidence that China is concerned about inhibiting navigation and the U.S. muscular presence is more about persuading other regional nations to support its actions and develop their own capabilities to stand up to China. Against this strategic wrestle the various disputes between China and other territorial claimants in the South China Sea act as pawns in a greater U.S.-China rivalry.

U.S. maritime and air operations close to its areas of claim in the South China Sea infuriates Beijing, resulting in further Chinese muscle movements that ripple out across the region. China is unwilling to accept constant US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes along its coasts without recourse to exercising its own deterrent strategy, part of which is to intimidate those nations with competing South China Sea claims to the point that they lose confidence in the U.S, undermining America’s role as a regional security provider. Is this possible?

The current wave of increased nationalism in Beijing sees a new generation firmly attached to the idea that the resources of the South China Sea are part of the motherland that was stolen by the colonies of powerful Western powers when it was weak. The government is unable to abandon that narrative without losing its legitimacy a position its neighbors are aware of and act accordingly. Despite continued cooperation, the Philippines has distanced itself politically and militarily from the U.S. while Malaysia carefully walks the fence, both countries careful not to rile China too greatly.

As the region begins to contemplate the economic rubble that the Coronavirus pandemic will leave, China is likely to remain the more determined in its position. The priority amongst its rivals for the immediate future will be the recovery of their economies leaving little appetite for regional confrontation. In those circumstances the ideology of sovereignty and the need for economic expediency will, at least for a time, prevail over wider geopolitical alliances.

Unilateral action by the U.S. will not prevent China exploiting the emerging world situation for its own advantage. Blunt military confrontation simply risks the unpicking of America’s regional relationships by a China which will deploy carrot and stick amongst its neighbors in equal measure, taking advantage of U.S. preoccupation elsewhere.

Compromise offers the only way forward and the U.S. should tread softly, denying China pretext for further military expansion. At the same time, it needs to work at ‘polishing’ its regional relationships reaching out to countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam rather than driving the pace and controlling the China response agenda. This involves working with their indigenous defense programs and standing back from their dialogue with Beijing on the sensitive nationalistic aspects surrounding their relationships. It should allow the region to pursue its own route while helping to create a sensible military balance that supports regional stability. The basin nations are pragmatic; they understand they have to deal with China’s growing military and economic power and that its looming regional presence is long-term. They can see a not-too-distant future when the U.S. under peer parity pressure from China can no longer manipulate the region’s issues and the national actions of allies to follow its own policy.

At the same time China must be convinced that it is in its interests to ‘play nice,’ and be sure the U.S. will cease its attempts to manipulate the situation in the South China Sea to its advantage. Reaching this stage requires Washington to exercise restraint. The world has enough on its plate without allowing a serious regional stand-off to escalate beyond control.

<<< >>>

By James Maclaren, Jan 11 2020 02:36PM

Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw the US from NATO and French president Emmanuel Macron has called it 'brain dead'. Do the recent disagreements between NATO members come when the West needs its defence alliance the most?

Not so long ago a former British Deputy Supreme Commander Europe (DSACEUR) joked that a NATO headquarters just about had the ability to brief itself. Such a view stemmed from the uneasy attempts to adapt NATO’s organisation and operations to the more nuanced challenges of dealing with a wide range of non-military threats. Over large bureaucratic headquarters running low intensity stabilisation missions provided examples of not very efficient military command and control with long national screwdrivers tweaking even the most low-level operational decision. It was a far cry from a military alliance that successfully faced down a military threat from the Cold war Soviet Union.

But the General’s frustration at such operational friction has now been overshadowed by more strategic and fundamental questions about NATO’s viability.

The organisation’s recent attempt to celebrate seven decades of existence in maintaining a European peace were muted, overshadowed by a series of arguments amongst the member states that go further than the regular squabbles of a complex international organisation. Instead it threatens to drive huge cracks in the organisation that may be irreparable.

What’s the problem with NATO?

At the heart of the NATO dilemma is disagreement about what NATO is for and who pays for it. The US, the alliances largest contributor by some margin is unhappy with both the idea of collective decision making and current burden sharing arrangements. The US would prefer to be unconstrained by alliance decision making in when and where it can deploy military force and recent decisions on the use of military force suggests it is not over-concerned with the view of its NATO allies on such matters. But most of all it resents the unequal financial burden of NATO. The first problem is the money.

NATO members are expected to commit two percent of their GDP towards defence expenditure. Only seven of the twenty-nine member states provide this level of national treasure, widely agreed to be the minimum necessary to meet collective operational readiness, and no one is anywhere near the GDP percentage that the US commits to defence expenditure.

The biggest offender resting in the US gun sights is Germany, which despite recent promises to increase its defence spending is not projected to achieve the two percent threshold until 2030. Such a timeline infuriates a president with a view, shared widely in the American political and military establishment, that Europe is getting defence on the cheap and it must stop.

The Trump preference for a transactional approach to diplomacy, naming and shaming those who fall short in their obligations was sharply illustrated by the holding of a special two-percenter lunch during the recent summit hosted by the British in the undistinguished town of Watford north of London. The smugness of this event and the fragmentation of NATO discussions into such groupings is not likely to do much to restore harmony. Of course, given the current US Administration’s view on the value of NATO, a long argument about burden sharing could simply be a means to justify the US in distancing itself and disengagement from the alliance.

Disenchantment works both ways. While the US fumes about spending, or its lack of, many European states are privately seething at the series of unilateral decisions made by the US. This includes the withdrawal of troops from Syria, a theatre of operations where close allies such as Britain and France had troops deployed, and which left a power vacuum, to be swiftly filled by an unrestrained Turkey. This country, also a NATO member, lost no time in occupying Kurdish areas of norther Syria. A further decision to conduct a UAV strike to kill the prominent Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, bringing the region to the brink of conflict was unilaterally undertaken by the US. Such strategic shifts and actions taken without consultation goes against the spirit of NATO collective responsibility and the US exercising its muscle and independence in this way has left a bad taste in European capitals.

There are also major differences in agreeing the alliances purpose. Its Cold War accomplishments made it too successful to dismantle and with mixed success NATO has reshaped itself a number of times stretching and contorting its charter, mandate and resources to maintain relevance and credibility. The US does not share the German and Eastern European preoccupation with Russia as a threat and NATO urged by the larger nations such as the US, UK and Canada, has moved its planning horizons and mission sets beyond the comfort zones of many of its members. NATO has been used to confront wider security dilemmas, and with each step away from the toe-to-toe power balance within the European theatre small cracks of disunity have formed. Many inside and outside of the organisation believe that in the quest for post-Cold War relevance NATO has been over-eager in seizing new and emerging threats and in doing so has overreached its collective organisational ability to deal with them.

The pendulum of conflict may be swinging back towards the re-emergence of state on state conflict as a first-tier threat. Russia still smarting from its humbling in the immediate post-Cold War period now seeks to reassert itself and looms large as NATO’s spectre. It has undertaken major military modernisation accompanied by an appetite to intervene in areas and conflicts it assesses to be of interest. Most of the member states joined NATO for reasons of territorial protection within Europe simply wishing a defensive arm around them to keep the Russian bear away. To most states, particularly in Eastern Europe, constraining Russia remains the organisation’s raison d’etre.

Other powerful nations see it differently. The French President Emmanuel Macron is one such leader. He chose the recent UK summit to side-line the birthday celebrations and follow up on his NATO is ‘brain dead’ comment by positing that NATO should concentrate its efforts on the menace presented by Islamic terrorism. Such a view largely reflects his own country’s concerns about radical threats from African states. France with the most overseas deployed troops of any European nation is an influential player and sees rapprochement with Russia as the way to secure European peace allowing the organisation to continue its orientation towards other transnational and not necessarily military threats.

Such a view does not travel far; but the French president’s intervention was a successful attempt to set the agenda, attempting to shape the future of NATO around a Franco narrative.

So, what of NATO’s future?

At its most successful NATO was a conventional military deterrent alliance where the simplicity of the Article 5 clause, an attack on one was an attack on all, could be translated into a political decision making and military command structure that looked and was solid. From the frozen tip of Norway to the warm islands of Greece, there was no break in the wall, each commitment measured costed and assigned. Operational plans were resourced and practised.

The return of NATO to that of a conventional military alliance structured to temper Russian ambitions and protect the economic sovereignty and political freedom of Europe is a worthy enough cause. It need not be the West’s answer to all threats, just the ones that challenge territorial integrity – a threat all member states can agree on. In this situation it is the only show in town. While the EU’s rhetoric trumpets a rival military capability able to operate independently of the United States, in truth it remains the dream of Federalists and without the inclusion of Great Britain, Europe’s major military power, is unlikely to amount to much. NATO’s future probably rests in returning to what it knows best and leaving the many non-military threats with which it has tried to engage to other agencies.

The bottom line, however, is that the future of NATO continues to rely upon US engagement. Without the military clout of the US, NATO would be of little military significance. Pooling all their resources the Europeans would struggle to mount and sustain a small crisis response mission in their own neighbourhood. The United States has called time on bankrolling the defence of Europe. More European NATO members will have to give ground to American demands that they spend a greater amount of their wealth on their armed forces.

The US will want to see more member states at the two-percenter lunch and see them more quickly than the current trajectory supposes.

By James Maclaren, Feb 12 2019 12:26PM

As the UK exits from the European Union it seeks to renew friendships and strengthen ties with countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. But there is a security price to pay.

The recent arrival of a Royal Navy warship, HMS Montrose into Auckland Harbour heralded a new defence initiative and return to the Asia-Pacific region by the UK. The Type 23 frigate is to be forward deployed to the region for three years and will undertake a number of duties including participation in the international maritime operation to enforce sanctions against North Korea. HMS Montrose is the latest in a line of British warships to operate in the region. Such deployments are not always viewed favourably. The transit of HMS Albion through the South China Sea in September 2018 produced controversy, and was described by China as provocative. It resulted in a protest to the UK being lodged by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. will continue in response to China’s The UK has confirmed that it will continue to participate in the international Freedom of Navigation Operations led by the United States, which are undertaken to resist China’s attempts to consolidate its territorial claims to a large swathe of the South China Sea.

However, the presence of the warship served another purpose.

As the British Government prepares to finalise its departure from the European Union there is renewed interest in developing far stronger ties to the region. Using the UK’s military for what it’s Ministry of Defence calls ‘Defence Diplomacy’ is part of several initiatives to win friends and influence people in an area of the world the UK has neglected. There is good reason for this.

The UK needs new trade partners.

Southeast Asia looks set to continue its steady economic rise albeit at a slightly more modest rate. According to latest OECD analysis, overall growth across the region will continue at a respectable 5.2% until 2022. As the UK seeks to balance its loss of access to the EU single market, it eyes the continued potential of the region with great interest. It sees trade with the Emerging Asian countries as strong markets for its technology, services and education sectors and views the recently renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) as an ambitious route to a deeper engagement once its departure from the EU is complete.

As the second largest exporter of military equipment in the world it also sees big opportunity for its defence industries. These ambitions were given a boost recently by Australia’s decision to select the UK designed Type 26 Global Combat Ship for its Future Frigate program. Not only is this a commercially significant decision but it will take the military interoperability between the countries to a new level as they eye the continued expansion of China’s maritime capability.

There is a historical angle too.

The UK has always been uneasy about its active withdrawal from engagement in the region. Past ties to countries such as Singapore and Malaysia and powerful wider links to Australia and New Zealand rapidly diminished following Britain’s inward turn to Europe, a process which many viewed with disquiet, like cutting off links with members of your family. There was a strong sense of sadness following the handover of Hong Kong that the country was turning its back on family, friends and allies too hastily. This was not just the nostalgia of a declining power, many view the shrinking of trade relations in the region to have been a strategic mistake and missed opportunity that the modest if safer embrace of the EU would not compensate for. Many believe taking a wider global view is critical to post-Brexit success and provides an opportunity to restore and rejuvenate historical links.

The push back toward the Asia-Pacific countries is being gently welcomed with warm words of support from governments from Singapore through to Australia. Non-Commonwealth countries too have showed they welcome an increased UK presence in the region’s trade, diplomatic and defence arrangements. Vietnam have warmed up their bilateral relationships with increased defence dialogue and trade discussions, while UK troops train in Japan with the Japanese Defence Forces.

But there are security obligations as well.

As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the ‘Five’ Eyes intelligence alliance and many other international organisations the UK sees itself as a substantial figure in the maintenance of a rule-based world order. There is a view in Government that given the globalised nature of common threats and the challenges to stability that exist, the UK should offer more than warm words and diplomatic pressure to support the US beyond the traditional NATO area of interest and use its significant security capabilities including when necessary hard military resources. A programme of training and support to Commonwealth countries like Malaysia and Singapore is underway, but there will be more, with military collaboration dialogues planned at various levels of pace and depth with the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia; all taking place against the backdrop of trade talks and increased diplomatic engagement. Both Australia and New Zealand isolated outposts of western security cooperation welcome increased UK security commitments which build on already strong bilateral arrangements with muscle and effort.

Enter HMS Montrose.

While on one level the forward deployment of a single warship represents nothing more than diplomatic signalling, it is a sign that UK military presence will grow in the region. Carefully coordinated with close allies like the US and Australia the deployment of Royal Navy ships will become a regular feature of UK military operations. Already plans are being scoped for a future deployment to the region by the new giant aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. A more ambitious plan for a permanent Royal Navy base in the region is under consideration by the UK Government and was trailed around Whitehall by the UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson MP.

What this means

Britain has a history of synergy between trade expansion and military operations (as well as the Royal Family) and sees their roles as mutually inclusive. After all, the East India Company — an early pretender to modern-day global corporations — was owned and funded the Indian Army of Empire days. Without the support of military power economic success would not have been possible. While no one suggests a similar approach is planned, in recent decades the UK has relied entirely upon its soft power capability to advance its interests in the region. Post-Brexit this is likely to change.

With developing markets and high-growth the countries of Southeast Asia and the Pacific represent an area of strategic interest which the UK will approach with new vigour. However, the price for deepening trade relationships and dependencies is likely to be the need to shoulder more responsibility for regional security. The early signs are that the British recognise such engagement is worth the prize.