London: A former British defence minister has called on Theresa May's government to reassert itself in the Asia-Pacific, saying China's assurances that it poses no threat to the world order cannot be trusted.
Sir Gerald Howarth, who served as the under secretary of state at the Ministry of Defence before his retirement last year, has been pressing Westminster to take a more muscular stance against China.
Sir Gerald said Fairfax Media's revelations that Beijing has sought to establish a military base in Vanuatu showed President Xi Jinping's assurance that China "does not have geopolitical calculations" was hollow.
"China’s actions speak louder than words," Sir Gerald told Fairfax Media.
"Their relentless build up of military facilities on South China Sea atolls whose ownership is disputed, their cavalier dismissal of the judgement of the international body in The Hague which rejected China’s claims, their threats to neighbours like Vietnam and now their reported interest in establishing further military facilities in Vanuatu flatly contradict Xi’s claims," he said.
Speaking at the Boao Forum this week, Xi said China's much-criticised "Belt and Road initiative" was not a "Chinese plot". But Western nations fear his plan to plough hundreds of billions of dollars into reviving the Silk Road is a strategic play by China to give it dominance over modern trade and shipping routes.
Australia has also criticised China for showering Pacific Island nations with aid through development loans, potentially putting the tiny economies at risk of running up debts they cannot afford to pay back. International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has accused Beijing of funding "roads to nowhere" and "white elephants".
Research conducted by The Lowy Institute shows Chinese aid in the Pacific has grown substantially, with China committing more than $US1.7 billion ($2.1 billion) in aid to eight Pacific Island countries.
In his opening speech to the forum on Tuesday, Xi said China will not engage in geopolitical games for selfish ends, nor will it create an exclusive club or force trade deals on others from above.
Sir Gerald said even if that were true, China was building up capability which it could exploit should its intentions change.
"What matters is not intentions, but capabilities because intentions can change overnight, capabilities cannot," he said.
"Britain needs to take a hard look at what China is up to and assert its own interest in the region by virtue of its membership of the Five Powers Defence Arrangement along with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore.
"Being mesmerised by Chinese money is no substitute for a properly considered regional strategy to constrain what look like clear Chinese military ambitions," he said.
Sir Gerald's comments follow a similar tough stance voiced by May's highly influential former aide Nick Timothy, who told Fairfax Media it was time for a Britain to be "much harder-headed" when it came to China.
Britain has vowed to exert a more global focus as a result of its decision to leave the European Union in March next year.
Tom Cargill from the British Foreign Policy group said "the Brits can have influence" in the Asia Pacific but would need to address the cutback of its diplomatic footprint in the region.
"I think the internal debate the UK is having about its place in the world is actually long overdue," he said. "In the 21st century, the Pacific is our backyard as surely as the North Sea is."
Cargill said May's success in leading a concerted global response against Russia over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter had demonstrated Britiain's ability to lead the world in defending the rules-based order.
"Taking a strong stance on that and building alliances around doing so reinforces the UK’s global standing as a responsible defender of those rules," he said.
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