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4 October 2023

What if China invaded Taiwan?

Keir Starmer has said little about his approach to foreign policy. But if he wins the next election, his premiership may be tested in ways he could never imagine.

By David Muir

It is the evening of 31 July 2027. Prime Minister Keir Starmer has spent the day with close friends and aides at Chequers celebrating the end of a gruelling but successful parliamentary term. The Prime Minister enters the small study to pick up some papers he wants to read through in bed. As he packs up, the phone rings. It is the duty clerk. She tells him, “Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and chief of the defence staff, they want to speak to you urgently. Can I put you through?”

As the night descends in Chequers it is the dawn of 1 August 2027 in Taiwan – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. From 4am there have been reports of disruption to internet connectivity and of explosions on National Highway Five, which connects the eastern port of Yilan with Taipei.

John Healey, the Defence Secretary, is put on the line to the Prime Minister.

“Keir, it looks like the Chinese are taking military action against Taiwan. The Americans have picked up from remote subsea sensors activity around cable landing sites in Tanshui, Pali, Fangshan and Toucheng. For all intents and purposes the Taiwanese are now cut off. There is also a flotilla of Chinese naval vessels heading to the north and the southern tip of the island.

“We also understand that Highway Five has been bombed, cutting off Yilan from Taipei, which appears to be a measure to disrupt eastern resupply routes. So far, it is not clear whether this is the prelude to an invasion or the start of a blockade.”

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As the Prime Minister listens to Healey, the duty clerk gently walks into the small study with a note. It reads, “The White House want to schedule a secure call, would you like me to prepare a return to London?” The Prime Minister smiles grimly and nods; he closes his call with the Defence Secretary.

[See also: Sharon Graham: “Labour is too cautious, it has been immobilised”]

Without police outriders Starmer is sped back to London. Reports are now starting to break on the BBC of the activity and there are early reports that the Japanese navy has launched a flotilla from Sasebo that is heading towards Taiwan.

The Prime Minister arrives in a deserted and eerie 10 Downing Street. He walks past the reading chair that Winston Churchill sat in as he plotted the country’s response to the fall of France in 1940; he gives the leather seat a comforting touch as he makes his way to the connecting door to the Cabinet Office and then briskly walks down the steps to Cobra. Officials arrive and the video screen comes to life. There appears a visbly rattled Kamala Harris, who ascended to the American presidency just weeks before.

“Keir, it is clear to me that China is either going to invade Taiwan or blockade it,” President Harris says. “The Seventh Fleet is engaging and the Japanese are sending reinforcements. The Australians are with us.

“So, I guess, my question is, are you with us, Keir? Are the British?”

If Keir Starmer is to win the general election next year he will not only inherit an economy described by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times as suffering from “the second-largest relative decline in the G7, ahead only of Italy”. He will also enter a geopolitical environment that a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff described to me as the “most insecure and fragile time I have ever known”.

So far, the leader of the opposition has been asked little and said little about the world that will define his time as prime minister, should that happen. Moreover, Starmer has made clear his admiration for Harold Wilson, and perhaps he too will have to make clear-headed foreign policy choices about what is in Britain’s national interest and risk offending American partners, just as Wilson did when he refused to support the Vietnam War.

In many ways Starmer has more to learn from the premierships of Harold Macmillan and Wilson, than from those of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Macmillan inherited a broken special relationship with the United States, accelerating decolonisation, and strategic drift on Europe. Upon seizing office, Macmillan moved quickly to set in place the Future Policy Study, which sought to outline how Britain could maintain and enhance its influence in the world in the next decade. It was a genuinely cross-Whitehall effort that broke the strategic stasis and ended wishful thinking, while setting in train Britain’s path to membership of the European Union.

If Labour wins the next general election, Starmer would be well advised to instigate a similar cross-Whitehall initiative, while engaging outside experts to assess the geopolitical environment that Britain will face from 2030 to 2040. This review should also take stock of our resources and then from this synthesis decide what the country’s priorities are. Should our force projection be limited to defending the Western Approaches in the North Atlantic? Or should we continue to pivot towards the Indo-Pacific, and if so what is the articulation of our national interest in doing this? And if that is in our national interest, how do we double down on Aukus – the trilateral security pact agreed with the US and Australia in 2021?

[See also: Li Shangfu’s disappearance shows the strength – and weakness – of Xi’s regime]

The UK government has no cross-Whitehall ministerial role that coordinates the defence, foreign policy and commercial realities of this compact. If anything, the second pillar of Aukus – which is focused on commercial cooperation on critical technologies such as undersea, quantum computing and AI – could be a real boon for UK industrial strategy. Putting in place a strong, empowered coordinating minister is something that needs doing, and quickly.

But at the heart of any review must be a clear-headed assessment of how the UK would play in a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan, especially as Xi Jinping has put in place a Putin-like support structure around him – shattering Chinese Communist Party norms in the process – and increasing the risk of Putin-like misjudgement.

In a conflict over Taiwan, Starmer is likely to face three choices. The first could be described as the “USA 1940” strategy – joining with the Europeans to offer material support but not participating in a naval blockade. This could, of course, significantly impair UK-US relations.

The second option, “USA 1942”, involves the UK becoming part of a war coalition by joining the high command and the US-China blockade, offering significant material support, and sending one Trident submarine to guarantee Australia, but stopping short of sending troops.

The third option, “USA 1944”, would entail all of the above plus troops. This would be welcomed by Australia and the US, but would a Labour Party still traumatised by the failed Iraq intervention support it and would a Starmer premiership survive it?

Pulling back from US-Taiwan, a Starmer government could face questions about the reinvention of Nato should a re-elected President Trump withdraw the US from the defence alliance. And if a new self-sustaining European Nato brings allies together, would that act as a trigger to re-evaluate Britain’s relationship with Europe in the round?

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions… in the devil’s decade of the late 2020s.

As Clement Attlee, Wilson, Blair and indeed Gordon Brown can testify, all too often a Labour premiership is defined by the response to a world crisis. Whether that be Korea in 1950 or the Great Recession of 2008. So, best to be prepared.

[See also: The challenges and threats for Labour in the world to come]

David Muir was director of strategy to Prime Minister Gordon Brown from 2008 to 2010

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power