Western imperialist claims of being inclusive and “progressive” have been ever-present, while simultaneously it binds peoples and nations in chains of exploitation image: Norman B Leventhal Map Center – flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)
Britain’s communists have made clear our opposition to the new stage of militarisation in the Asia-Pacific region and, above all, British imperialism’s role within this campaign, directed against the People’s Republic of China. Our party’s last national congress stated that:
We oppose the attempts of the imperialist powers to enforce a new division of China and greater militarisation of the Asia Pacific region. In particular, we reject the British government’s neo-colonialist attempts to continue to interfere in Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after 150 years of anti-democratic British rule. We oppose the revival of the deliberately dangerous and provocative use of British naval forces in the South China Sea, which is an unmistakable echo of the very “gunboat diplomacy” that led to Britain’s aggressive Opium Wars against China 180 years ago (CPB 2021).
It is easy to mock and ridicule the pretensions of British imperialism. The previous British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, epitomised the image of the blustering, buffoonish English public schoolboy dressed in a Union Jack waistcoat. This can be misleading. Despite Britain’s exit from the European Union (Brexit), a move which it must be remembered was resisted by all the mainstream forces of the British ruling class (Confederation of British Industry, Institute of Directors, the then leadership of the Conservative Party, et al), the United Kingdom remains a significant and dangerous international force.
The US Cold Warrior Dean Acheson remarked as far back as 1962 that “Great Britain has lost an empire and failed to find a role,” yet, although British imperialism is in absolute and relative decline, it still possesses key strengths that pose a threat to peace. While it is very much a junior partner of US imperialism, British capitalism remains a significant global actor. We will see how this is specifically related to the AUKUS Pact later, but we can identify several key features of British imperialism, which are often overlooked, including unfortunately by large sections of the British left.
British Imperialism: Key Features
There are several areas where Britain remains a central component of the Western imperialist alliance.
Conventional Military Power
The UK was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), also of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (1954-1977). The UK has the fourth largest military budget in the world and the second largest network of overseas military bases.
According to recent research, in 2020 Britain’s military had a permanent presence at “145 base sites in 42 countries or territories around the world … There are sites in five countries circling China – in Singapore, Brunei, Australia, Nepal and Afghanistan,” the report noted.
The Afghan airbase, “Camp Bastion,” was the largest British military base built since WW2. It is now controlled by the Taliban. There are also bases in “Cyprus, in seven Arab countries, in Africa – Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mali – and in tax havens such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. In Saudi Arabia there are 15 sites contributing to the Saudi-led war currently devastating Yemen.”1
Britain’s Royal Navy continues to play a provocative role in exercises and sail-bys in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait but its capacity for independent action is limited and is entirely dependent on co-operation and direction from the US Navy (BBC 2021).
Nuclear Military Power
The UK government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, published in March 2021, included a commitment to increase the number of nuclear warheads in the UK’s arsenal for the first time since the Cold War from 200 to 260 (itself a breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty). The document also included a change-in-use posture – the government will consider using nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear threats, including “emerging technologies,” which may mean a cyber-attack.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has estimated that the plan to replace the fleet of four Trident submarines will cost at least £205 billion. This includes “renting” the US-made missiles and adding a new generation PWR3 nuclear reactor for power (probably the same one for the Australian submarines). These Trident reactors are to be built by Rolls-Royce in Derby.2 Peace activists in Australia should be aware that the costings given by CND are very much on the conservative side. All previous nuclear military budgets over-run considerably. Estimates by the Australian military for the financial costs of the AUKUS should be treated with scepticism.
[2 Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, https://cnduk.org/campaigns/no-to-trident.]
The UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, allowing it a veto on all substantive motions placed before the UNSC. Britain has rarely needed to use this power unilaterally since the USA generally votes alone. The last time the UK veto was exercised was over the US aggression against Panama (1989) and that vote was naturally in concert with the USA. Generally, the UK’s solo vote was used on issues relating to former or existing imperial possessions in Africa (South Africa, Namibia and “Southern Rhodesia” – today’s Zimbabwe) and Palestine/Middle East.3
[3 For UNSC vetoes, see https://research.un.org/en/docs/sc/quick.]
Intelligence and Espionage
The UK’s Secret Intelligence Service – also known as MI6 – remains one of the most effective spy operations in the West. According to its mission statement:
Our people work secretly around the world to make the UK safer and more prosperous. For over 100 years SIS has ensured the UK and our allies keep one step ahead of our adversaries. We are creative and determined – using cutting-edge technology and espionage. We have three core aims: stopping terrorism, disrupting the activity of hostile states, and giving the UK a cyber advantage. We work closely with MI5, GCHQ, HM Armed Forces, law enforcement and a range of other international partners.4
[ 4 See www.sis.gov.uk.]
Richard Moore, head of MI6, said in his first public speech in 2021 that the agency’s main priorities were the “Big Four,” China, Russia, Iran and international terrorism. “Adapting to a world affected by the rise of China is the single greatest priority for MI6. We are deepening our understanding of China across the UK Intelligence community, and widening the options available to the government in managing the systemic challenges that it poses. This is not just about being able to understand China and Chinese decision making. We need to be able to operate undetected as a secret intelligence agency everywhere within the worldwide surveillance web,” Moore said.
In advance of the formation of NATO, the UK intelligence services were already linked to those of the US through the 1946 British-US Communication Intelligence Agreement (UKUSA). This was eventually expanded to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The “Five Eyes” is therefore entirely Anglophone in origin and current membership. As recently declassified documents have shown, the alliance is not one of equals and the dominance of the US National Security Agency (NSA) is obvious.5
The UK is a G7 member, the UK’s GDP in 2019 was USD $2.7 trillion. It ranks in the top five world economies by nominal GDP and in the top ten by GDP calculated by PPP. The UK was a founding member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). According to the OECD website:
Like all the member countries, the government of the United Kingdom maintains a permanent delegation to the OECD, composed of an ambassador and diplomats. As a member of the Council, the United Kingdom’s ambassador, in consultation with his peers, agrees the programme of work which is described in the annual report and establishes the volume of the annual budget, contributions being assessed according to the relative size of each country’s economy. Members of the UK Delegation monitor the work of the OECD’s various committees as well as the activities of the International Transport Forum (ITF), the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC), of which the United Kingdom is a member.6
The City of London is home to one of the largest Stock Exchanges in the world with a market capitalisation exceeding USD $4 trillion. However, the absolute decline of British capitalism on a global level can be measured by the fact that, according to the Fortune 500, only 22 British-based transnational corporations qualified for inclusion in 2021, compared with 40 in 2000.
British imperialism recognised early on that it needed to fight an information war and used the global status of the English language to spread its influence. In 1932, it established the English-only BBC Empire Service, subsequently retitled the BBC Overseas Service (1939) and from 1965 known as the BBC World Service.
In addition to English, the BBC sought to set the propaganda agenda in other regions using local languages. The BBC World Service, which was established on the eve of WW2 made its first broadcast not in a European language, such as German, French, Italian or Spanish, as might be expected, but in Arabic. This was a response to fears that anti-colonial sentiment in the Middle East was undermining British influence. In the years after WW1, British Intelligence not only had its agents of influence in every corner of Fleet Street but it also directed some of the operations of respected and supposedly independent news sources, in particular Reuters (Faulconbridge 2020).
The BBC has always assiduously promoted the myth that it is an unbiased news source, unaffected by political pressure from British governments. In reality, its output domestically and especially internationally rarely deviates from the Westminster consensus. The World Service is still partially funded by the British Foreign Office. Television and radio broadcasting has been joined by a major effort to expand on digital platforms. In 2020 and 2021, the BBC announced that it had seen record audience figures with an average of 489 million adults every week. The BBC’s international news services also reached record levels with 456 million adults using them each week. This includes audiences for World Service’s 40 language services, World Service English, World News TV, BBC.com and BBC Media Action. The key role of the BBC in promoting British interests was openly acknowledged by Tim Davie, BBC Director-General, who said: “The fact that our audience has more than doubled in the last decade shows how trusted and increasingly valued BBC services are right around the world. It also highlights the important role we play for Britain on the global stage in carrying the UK’s voice, democratic values and influence.”7
British Interference in Hong Kong
Britain took control of Hong Kong through a series of “unequal treaties” imposed on China after a succession of “Opium Wars” in the 19th century. For a century and a half, the colony was ruled by a British-appointed governor and local citizens had no say in his selection. Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty was negotiated in the early 1980s and the framework set out in the Sino-British Declaration of 1984. The declaration has subsequently been exhumed by UK diplomats and the media with the assertion that it somehow guarantees British rights and privileges after 1 July, 1997. A simple reading of the document shows this is utterly false.
The declaration says under item 3: (2) “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be directly under the authority of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People’s Government.”
The document clearly outlines that Chinese sovereignty is absolute and undivided and that the city’s administration is under the ultimate jurisdiction of the Chinese central government with a high degree of autonomy (not independence) according to the “One Country, Two Systems” principle (Coyle 2022).
The BN(O) Passport Issue
This section is taken from a briefing for the British anti-imperialist organisation Liberation.8
Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents have a travel document called the British National (Overseas) passport (BNO). An estimated 3 million may be entitled to it. However, the Johnson government has attempted to use this travel document (it does not confer British citizenship or nationality on the holder) as a “fast track to citizenship.” Some commentators (eg Simon Tisdall in The Guardian) have floated the idea of a “brain drain,” whereby Hong Kong would haemorrhage its professional and business class.
Until 1983, Hong Kong citizens could settle fairly easily in the UK, depending on their personal situation, using the BNO’s predecessor the British Dependent Territory Citizen passport. The BDTC status was shared by a number of UK controlled territories, such as the Isle of Man, Channel Islands and Hong Kong, with the latter by far the most populous.
However, the Thatcher government introduced a racist Immigration Bill in 1981, which took effect two years later. The Bill separated the predominantly white territories from the non-white territories, giving full citizenship to those living in the Isle of Man, Channel Islands, Gibraltar (and only after the Falklands/Malvinas War to Falkand islanders), excluding non-white territories and specifically Hong Kong’s then two million plus BDTC passport holders.
The timing was not accidental. Talks about Hong Kong’s future had begun in 1982 and the Thatcher government’s hostility to non-white migrants – she had famously warned of Britain being “swamped” by Asian immigration – was a matter of public record.
Only after 2002, during the Blair years, was the BDTC status converted to effective full citizenship and right of abode. By this time of course, Hong Kong SAR was Chinese and the 1984 declaration had made clear that Britain would not extend BNO rights to Hong Kongers born or applying after 1997.
In a further racist move, the Thatcher government attempted to prevent Portugal from offering full Portuguese passports to the residents of Macau. The Tory government realised that when Portugal joined the then European Community (in 1986), Portugese passport holders could enjoy the right to settle in other EC countries, including the UK.
By contrast in Macau, Hong Kong’s sister Special Administrative Region, its former colonial power Portugal behaved differently. Following the anti-fascist Carnation Revolution of 1974, Portuguese governments were keener to end colonial rule in Macau and the territory was soon designated as a “Chinese territory under temporary Portuguese administration.”
A Sino-Portuguese Declaration was signed in 1987, essentially along the same lines as the 1984 Sino-British Declaration on Hong Kong. However, Portugal offered full Portuguese citizenship to Macau residents born before 1981 and their descendants. Many took advantage of the passport but few were interested in moving to Portugal following 1999 as the economy boomed.
However, this move set alarm bells ringing in Whitehall in 1985. Portugal was to join the European Union in 1986 and Portuguese passport holders would be entitled to settle elsewhere within the EU.
Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd wrote a memorandum in October 1985 expressing his concerns to Cabinet colleagues: “having succeeded in avoiding large scale immigration from Hong Kong as a consequence of the negotiations … we really should not drift into a position in which the unintended consequence of Portuguese accession is the potential immigration of large numbers from Macau.”
Despite the acceleration of its post-war decline, British imperialism remains a second-tier power to be reckoned with. Its foreign and military policies are almost indistinguishable from that of Washington. Britain’s relations with China are at what must be considered an all-time low. Tensions between the two countries are avoidable and the potential for expanding trade, cultural and other forms of contacts is enormous. Unfortunately, given the direction of all the major parliamentary parties –Tory, Labour, Liberal Democrats and even the Scottish National Party – Britain seems set on confrontation rather than co-operation with China, a policy fraught with dangers.
BBC (British Broadcasting Commission). 2021. “China warns UK as carrier strike group approaches” 30 July, 2021. www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58015367.
Coyle, Kenny, 2022. “A Faded Empire Strikes Back.” Morning Star, 18 August, 2022. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/faded-empire-strikes-back.
CPB (Communist Party of Britain). 2021. “Halting Imperialism’s Drive to War.” International Resolution, Communist Party of Britain, 56th Congress, 2021.
Faulconbridge, Guy. 2020. “Britain Secretly Funded Reuters in 1960s and 1970s: Documents.” Reuters, 20 January, 2020. www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-media-idUSKBN1ZC20H.