Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
NO discussion upon foreign affairs can be properly staged unless amongst the properties there is a bogie. The wise producer keeps a stock of bogies. Sometimes, just as a fortunate star of musical comedy continues to rule the stage long after voice and figure have lost their first freshness, there is no doubt as to which is the right bogie to have ready for the dénouement; at other times the breeze of public favor changes rapidly. We are for the moment at the latter stage.
For long years the British impresario had no reason to hesitate. Russia was the supreme bogie. Every time that a grey-coated soldier appeared a few miles nearer to the frontier of Afghanistan, there was "an incident." Every time a new scheme for the extension of the Russian railway system into Central Asia was projected ominous conclusions were drawn. Even when the colossus of Europe was checked by Japan in 1904 and 1905, there was but a temporary disappearance of the Russian bogie, for in 1906, when Lord Kitchener was commander-in-chief in India, he based his plan for the reorganization of the Indian army on the probability of a great Russian advance through Afghanistan the details of which were worked out by his staff in an elaborate war game.
Then suddenly the promulgation of the German naval laws changed the situation, though Germany never had, until quite a short period before the outbreak of the Great War, the prestige as a scare-monger which Russia had so long enjoyed, and many who would willingly have voted millions to prepare for a war against Russia hoped to the last that Great Britain would not be involved in a quarrel between France and Germany.
Now after the war the search for the right bogie has become more difficult. Attempts to re-dress the old favorites have not been too successful. Much talk of Germany's secret armies and secret armaments has not been taken seriously by a public which knows that Germany has but an insignificant fleet and no military air force. For a time Russia re-appeared in an entirely new costume, but however seriously her sinister political activities may be taken, the memory of her lack of military material during the war and the knowledge of the extent of her disorganization has prevented her from holding the front of the stage in the rôle of a military menace to the rest of Europe.
So Germany and Russia were returned to the wardrobe ready to be produced again when wanted, a complete change of scenery was provided, the European and Eastern sets were stored away, and the curtain was rolled up to display the Far West judiciously mingled with a touch of the Far East. Kipling was to be proven to be a false prophet and East and West were to meet in the Pacific. Japan the inscrutable appeared to be well suited to the part of bogie. Then came the Washington Conference and the Pacific pacts. Japan was found to be making serious reductions in her military forces, and it began to be doubtful if she would long hold the public eye. It seemed wise to have another change of scenery ready and to look for another star. So rehearsals for presenting the Mediterranean with an entirely new cast are in active preparation.
The new production promises to present to us many old friends in a new guise. When at the end of the Great War several crowns came toppling down, we were assured that imperialism and autocracy were dead. But autocracy has reappeared in a new form, and nowhere more prominently than on the shores of the Mediterranean. Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey are dominated by autocrats.
Signor Mussolini's press speaks of Mare nostrum in a tone reminiscent of "My German Ocean." There is talk also of an Italian "place in the sun." The African shores of the Mediterranean are indicated as possessing the requisite degree of warmth and light, with Malta as a convenient half-way house to the promised land. Il Duce's visit to Tripoli has reminded more than one observer of the Kaiser's trip to Tangier. The agreements which he has recently concluded with Jugoslavia and Greece have been hailed as a triumph for Italian over French diplomacy, until recently supposed to be dominant in those quarters. Certainly when we remember the bombardment of Corfu and we see that Greece has conferred an important decoration upon Mussolini, we cannot but be aware that remarkable changes are taking place in the Mediterranean. What do they portend?
First let us see what those things are. In the years when Russia was for Great Britain the supreme bogie, the principal British fleet was stationed in the Mediterranean. The object was to secure communication with India and the Far East, and the apprehension was that Russia issuing through the Dardanelles would attack in flank. It was this apprehension which caused Lord Beaconsfield to send the British fleet to Constantinople in 1878, when Russia after a prolonged struggle had driven the Turkish armies into the lines of Chataldja. He said to Russia "no further," and Russia exhausted by war agreed. It was this same apprehension which caused Beaconsfield to purchase Cyprus from Turkey and Ismail Pasha's shares in the Suez Canal. The former has proved a less fortunate investment than the latter, for war has shown that Cyprus is entirely unsuited for the purpose for which it was acquired, as a base from which to watch the Dardanelles. In those days British policy was directed to encouraging Turkey to keep the Dardanelles closed to war ships, and to prevent Russia from acquiring Constantinople.
"We don't want to fight, but by jingo, if we do, We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.
The Russians shall not have Constantinople!"
was the popular chorus of the music halls.
The Great War brought a complete reversal of this policy. An agreement was signed with Russia, who had become an ally, that her advance to the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles would be approved. The collapse of Imperial Russia cancelled this agreement but not the reversal of British policy, which directed its efforts in the peace settlements to getting the Dardanelles opened and demilitarized. A Soviet fleet was not regarded as a menace to sea communications.
When in the years preceding the Great War Germany took Russia's place as the bogie, the battle fleets of Great Britain were concentrated in the North Sea. France, having concluded the Entente with Great Britain, then concentrated her fleets in the Mediterranean for the purpose of assuring her communications with North Africa. Now after the war the principal British fleet is once more in the Mediterranean and the disposition of the French fleet has not been materially changed. The consequence is that there is today a greater display of naval strength in the Mediterranean than there has been in all the varied and adventurous history of the sea.
France has enormously increased her possessions in Africa as a consequence of the war, and communication across the Mediterranean has come to be of greater importance to her than ever, therefore the tendency has been to reduce the naval stations on the Atlantic -- L'orient and Rochefort -- and to develop Toulon and Corsica and those on the north coast of Africa -- Bizerta, Oran and Algiers. France's African possessions including Morocco and her mandated territories now comprise an area of more than 3,500,000 square miles, and include a population of 36,000,000, an increase since the war of about 400,000 square miles, and in Syria she has a further addition of 60,000 square miles. She has therefore more than sufficient to occupy her powers of development and the distribution of her fleets connotes no desire for further expansion.
Great Britain's return in strength to the Mediterranean is for the same reason which caused her to be strong there in the years before she withdrew into the North Sea to maintain her communications with the East. When her battleships first re-visited Malta the Allies were in occupation of Constantinople. There followed the rise of Kemal, the ejection of Greece from Asia Minor, and the crises which developed into the deposition of the Sultan and the entry of the Turkish Republic into Europe. The Allies, pre-occupied with the settlement with Germany and unable to agree as to a common policy in the Near East, had let things drift and so lost their opportunity of settling the age-long question of the control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. The new Turkey, flushed with victory, was disposed to make extensive claims, and in particular asserted her right to Northern Mesopotamia and Mosul. A conflict between Great Britain and Turkey seemed at one time probable, for Kemal showed little disposition either to recognize the jurisdiction or to abide by the decisions of the League of Nations. That dispute has now been happily settled, and the most difficult and vital problem of the Mediterranean at the moment revolves around the status of Egypt.
Great Britain entered Egypt in 1882 in order to quell a revolt, headed by one Arabi, which involved almost the whole of the Egyptian army and threatened both the security of the Suez Canal and the rights and property of British subjects. France who had also extensive interests in Egypt was invited by Great Britain to intervene with her, but declined. A British expedition quickly quelled the rebellion and occupied Cairo. The British occupation had been announced as temporary and for the sole object of the restoration of order and the provision of security. Both the Liberal Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone, during whose administration the first expedition was dispatched, and his Conservative successor, Lord Salisbury, were sincerely anxious to get out of Egypt at the first possible moment, a fact clearly demonstrated by their correspondence, though the foreign critic naturally enough has had his doubts. It is, however, always easier to enter into commitments than it is to get rid of them.
The suppression of Arabi was almost immediately followed by risings in the Sudan, which threatened the safety of the garrisons
of loyal Egyptian troops in that country. Having disrupted the old Egyptian army, Great Britain had clearly assumed responsibility for the security of Egypt and for the safety of Egyptian and other foreign subjects in the Sudan. Hence the dispatch of Gordon to Khartoum and of the expedition which in vain endeavored to relieve him. The failure of that expedition and the subsequent withdrawal of British troops to the frontier of Egypt naturally resulted in a great increase in the power and prestige of the Mahdi who had led the rising in the Sudan, and a British withdrawal from Egypt in those days would almost certainly have been followed by an influx of Sudanese barbarians into the Nile Delta. It was not until 1898, sixteen years after Lord Wolseley had led the first British expedition into Egypt, that Kitchener overthrew the Mahdi and re-occupied Khartoum, and the chief of the Mahdi's lieutenants, Osman Digna, was not captured until two years later.
There followed the difficult task of establishing stable and just government over the vast area of the Sudan. While all this had been going on, the wise administration of Lord Cromer had resulted in the reconstruction of Egyptian finance, the establishment of a system of justice and the introduction of social reforms, which had produced a steady development of trade and industry and an era of increasing prosperity. This in its turn had caused a great increase in the foreign population of Egypt, particularly of French, Greeks and Italians.
The status of Egypt throughout this period was juridically and officially that of a fief of Turkey. The Khedive, as the ruler of Egypt was termed, was in name a viceroy of the Sultan, though in fact he was a prince independent of Constantinople, and the succession to the Khedival throne had for long gone in the Khedival family. The prime object of the British intervention in 1882 had been the restoration of the Khedive, Tewfik Pasha, and the reestablishment of his government which had been accomplished. The status and rights of foreigners in Egypt had been secured by a whole series of capitulations and treaties, most of which dated from a period long before the British intervention took place. When the event occurred the responsibility for assuring the observance of these treaty rights devolved upon Great Britain.
Such was the position when the Great War broke out and Turkey joined Great Britain's enemies. Egypt could then no longer be regarded as a state subject, even in name, to Turkey, and a new status had to be found for the country. This was done by declaring a British protectorate over Egypt, with a promise that the position of the country would be reconsidered after the war. The negotiations for this end resulted in 1921 in the dispatch of a mission under Lord Milner to Egypt for the purpose of advising upon the new constitution to be given to that country. This mission recommended that Egypt should be given the status of a kingdom with diplomatic representation abroad, that there should be no British army of occupation save such as was required for the protection of the Suez Canal, and that during the process of reconstruction the financial adviser to the Government and a high official in the Ministry of Justice should be British.
The negotiations were complicated by the rise of an extreme nationalist party under Zaghlul Pasha who demanded the entire independence of Egypt and the return to her unconditionally of the Sudan. Zaghlul was deported to Ceylon and in 1922 Lord Allenby, the conqueror of Palestine, who had become British High Commissioner in Egypt, negotiated a settlement which resulted in the Declaration of Egyptian Independence subject to certain reservations. Fuad, the Khedive, became King of Egypt with Adly Pasha, a liberal who was prepared to negotiate on constitutional lines, as Prime Minister. The questions which were reserved for further negotiation were the protection of Egypt against foreign aggression, the status of the Sudan, the protection of the Suez Canal, and British responsibilities for foreign interests.
At the time of the Declaration of Independence, the British Minister announced that Great Britain would regard any attempt at interference in Egyptian affairs as an unfriendly act, and would consider aggression against Egyptian territory as an act to be repelled by all means. This was in effect declaring a kind of Monroe Doctrine in regard to Egypt, the declaration being accompanied by an assurance that Great Britain held herself responsible for the protection of foreign interests and the due observance of treaties and agreements. On these terms the new Constitution of Egypt was promulgated in 1923 and on the advice of Lord Allenby Zaghlul was released.
There have been many criticisms of the wisdom of the Declaration of Independence accompanied by assertions that Egypt is not yet ripe for self-government. These criticisms are academic. The declaration has been made and Great Britain cannot, and has no intention of going back on it. The question is how the Declaration and the new Constitution can be applied and developed, and this depends mainly upon Egyptians themselves.
So far development has been persistently retarded by the action of the extremists. Zaghlul's release was followed by a renewal of agitation which culminated in November, 1924, in the assassination of Sir Lee Stack, the British commander of the Egyptian army. The Egyptian Parliament was thereupon dissolved and when, in 1925, new elections were permitted Zaghlul was chosen President of the new chamber. This was clearly a direct challenge, so once more the Egyptian Parliament was dissolved, Lord Allenby resigned his position as High Commissioner, and Lord Lloyd became his successor. Under these auspices new elections have just been held. They have again resulted in the return of a large Zaghlulist majority, but after some straight talk from Lord Lloyd, Zaghlul has wisely refused to form a government, a task which has been undertaken by Adly Pasha, the premier of 1922, who has always advocated constitutional methods.
While Adly is of course aware that he owes his majority to the extremists, there is reasonable ground for supposing that he would not have assumed office without assurance that his method will be given a fair trial. The Zaghlulist majority is largely composed of the ignorant felaheen, who are unaware of the real issues and are easily moved by the cry of "Egypt for the Egyptians," and still more, since they are all cultivators, by the entirely false statement that Great Britain wants the Sudan in order to deprive Egypt of the water of the Nile for the benefit of that province. Adly is, however, assured of the support of the foreign element and of the moderate Egyptians who have achieved prosperity under British management. There are therefore reasonable grounds for hoping that the period of agitation and disorder will be followed by a period of negotiations, and it becomes worth while considering on what lines negotiations may proceed.
Lord Milner's advice, which has been accepted by successive British governments, was that the reserved questions should be settled by a treaty between Great Britain and Egypt. Zaghlul has from the first opposed a treaty and is so deeply committed to that attitude that it is highly improbable that he could change it if he would. It is therefore improbable also that Adly Pasha can at present venture to re-open the question of the treaty. There is thus a tendency for the problem of Egypt to revolve in a vicious circle, for agitation is likely to continue as long as the reserved questions are unsettled and agitation hinders settlement. This being the position, there is little ground for expecting that a permanent and satisfactory arrangement can be speedily concluded. For that we shall probably have to wait until the majority of the extremists realize that there are definite limits to the extent to which their demands can be met.
Of these demands, that which calls for the absolute return of the Sudan to Egypt has least justification. Egypt had for long years control of the Sudan, with the result that Egyptian Pashas made themselves hated by the Sudanese and the country became a standing menace to Egypt, who had to be protected by British bayonets. After Kitchener's re-conquest of the Sudan the status of that country was determined in 1899 by the Boutros-Cromer convention, which set up what Lord Cromer described as a "hybrid form of government." Both the British and the Egyptian flags fly over the Sudan and if in fact circumstances have made the Government at present entirely British the two flags remain and there is no reason, given Egyptian good will, why concessions should not be made on the lines of the original convention, which would go some way towards satisfying Egyptian amour propre. Egypt is entitled to complete guarantees as to the supply of Nile water, upon which her existence depends, but she is not entitled to unrestricted control of a country which she had grossly misgoverned, which she could not have re-entered without British aid, a country against which she could not have defended herself without that aid, and a country the inhabitants of which have not the least desire to be handed back to a purely Egyptian government. That is a matter upon which all political parties in Great Britain are agreed, and Zaghlul received as firm and as decisive an answer from Mr. Ramsay MacDonald as he did from Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Bonar Law.
The other reserved questions all turn upon the maintenance of a British garrison in Egypt. For the defense of Egypt against foreign aggression no permanent British garrison can now be said to be necessary. Egypt is covered by Palestine on the east, by the desert on the west, and by the Sudan on the south. An attack upon Egypt from outside could only come by sea, and against that the British fleet in the Mediterranean is the guarantee.
There is likewise the reserved question of the Suez Canal. The Canal is commonly called in the British press "the vital artery of the British Empire." That, like most catch phrases, is an exaggeration. The British Empire existed long before the Suez Canal was constructed, and if the Canal were to disappear today the British Empire would not therefore collapse. From a military point of view the position of Great Britain as regards the Suez Canal is not unlike her position in regard to the Dardanelles, when there was danger of a Russian fleet issuing through those straits to make a flank attack upon her communications with the East. It would be a matter of vital importance to Great Britain if in time of war a hostile fleet could come through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to attack her communications across the Indian Ocean, but that again would be prevented more certainly by a British fleet based upon Malta and the British possession of Perim and Aden at the southern exit of the Red Sea than by a British garrison in Egypt. If in war with a Mediterranean naval power the Canal were to be closed to both belligerents, either by sabotage or by some other means, the loss to Great Britain would not be great, for with modern large and fast steamers troops and stores could be sent to the East by the Cape route more rapidly than they could have been sent by the Canal route when de Lesseps had completed his great work. Further, in the event of war against a Mediterranean naval power, the submarine, for the employment of which the indented coasts of that sea are admirably adapted, would almost certainly make traffic between Port Said and Gibraltar so precarious that it would have to be abandoned. For this reason we had during the latter part of the Great War to rely more and more upon the Cape route.[i]
The Suez Canal is not therefore vital to the British Empire, because there is an alternative route to the East which in most circumstances can be more easily secured. The Canal is the shortest, cheapest and most convenient route to the East and the Pacific in time of peace, and until conditions in Egypt are more settled than they are today it may be advisable to keep a small garrison to protect the Canal against sabotage. Such a garrison would be much more conveniently placed for this duty elsewhere than in Cairo and Alexandria, and quartered say at Tel-el-Kebir, where it would be equi-distant from Port Said and Suez and in easy communication with both, its presence would be unobtrusive. There are thus grounds for negotiation as to the strength and location of the British garrison, provided that the question of the protection of foreign interests can be settled.
So long as Great Britain declares that no other power shall intervene in Egypt she ipso facto makes herself responsible for the protection of the nationals and interests of other powers. Agitation has been followed too frequently by violence, and until Egypt is able herself to assure internal order the maintenance of a garrison in the capital is necessary. Thus the question of a modification of the British occupation resolves itself primarily into whether the Egyptians are prepared to abandon violent methods.
There remains the question of Britain's right to forbid foreign intervention. That right rests upon fifty years of successful tutelage which has brought Egypt from a state of bankruptcy and vassalage to one of financial stability and has placed her on the road to independence. To abandon that work to another power which has not had the long and costly experience of Egyptian administration acquired by Great Britain would be foolish and not in the interests of the country.
There are not wanting signs that others would be prompt to intervene if Great Britain were to resign her trust. Disciples of Signor Mussolini are fond of inveighing against British control of the Mediterranean. Why, they ask, should Britain hold Egypt at one end of the Mediterranean and Gibraltar at the other? Recently one of the leading Italian papers has been pointing out that Italian territory in Africa, Cyrenaica in the northwest and Eritrea in the south, touches two of the frontiers of Egypt and has hinted plainly that in that country is to be found the desirable "place in the sun" which Italy seeks. Signor Mussolini's own pronouncements have been more moderate, it is true, but he is quite aware that few things would increase his popularity more than a declaration of Italian control over Egypt. Were Great Britain to leave Egypt to herself there is little doubt that Italy would not be long in finding a justifiable reason for intervention in a country where there is a large Italian population and extensive Italian business interests.
Such then is the present position in the Mediterranean. It is complicated and difficult, but at present less dangerous than it appeared likely to become a few months ago. The agreement with Turkey over Mosul and the advent of a moderate Prime Minister to power in Egypt have cleared the air. The Italian agreements with Jugoslavia and Greece, while they have increased Italian prestige in the Mediterranean at the expense of that of France, in themselves make for peace, for in the ill-feeling which for long existed between Italy and her western neighbors in the Mediterranean there has been a constant source of anxiety. If the Egyptian question can now be amicably settled by negotiation between the British and Egyptian governments, there will remain no Mediterranean problem which seems likely to disturb the security of Europe.
[i] From March 7, 1916, the Mediterranean was closed by the British Government to all traffic, which could use another route.