The CCP virus crisis has both highlighted the nature of China’s threat to the West and drawn democracies around the world toward authoritarianism, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Nick Carter has said.
The pandemic has served as a reminder that the modus operandi of “our authoritarian rivals,” has “diversified markedly,” Carter said in his annual Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Christmas lecture published on Thursday.
They now regard “the strategic context as a continuous struggle in which non-military and military instruments are used unconstrained by any distinction between peace and war,” he said.
China is also “trying to draw much of the non-rich world into its sphere of influence by providing the digital infrastructure that companies and services are built on,” while “Huawei is being shut out of 5G only in the rich world.”
It has “accelerated the atomisation of international society,” as countries and alliances face inward to deal with the disease’s domestic impacts, he said, yet democracies have taken advantage of the crisis to infringe on the freedoms of their citizens.
“It has been striking how many so-called democracies have used the pandemic as an opportunity to enhance their power in authoritarian ways,” Carter said.
But he said the trend towards authoritarianism had been evident even before the crisis hit.
This was echoed in a special 2020 report by democracy advocacy organisation Freedom House titled “Democracy Under Lockdown.”
It said its research “strongly supports the hypothesis that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the [previous] 14 years of consecutive decline in freedom.”
But “since the coronavirus outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries,” it said.
‘Abuses of Power’
“Governments have responded by engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics, and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public health,” it said.
Freedom House also said the decline in democratic freedoms may not end even when the pandemic does.
“The crisis of democratic governance,” it warned “is likely to continue after the health crisis recedes, as the laws and norms being put in place now will be difficult to reverse.”
Carter said the virus crisis “has exposed some stark choices” and he endorsed an observation from historian Yuval Noah Harari who, at the beginning of the virus crisis, wrote in the Financial Times that “we face two particularly important choices.”
“The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment,” Harari wrote. “The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to choose the latter in both cases when announcing a £24.1 billion ($31.8 billion) military funding boost last month. He said it would serve to protect Britain’s “interests and values” and bolster the country’s ability to “join the United States and our allies to defend free and open societies.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed the call for allied solidarity last month.
‘China Does Not Share Our Values’
“China is investing massively in new weapons. It is coming closer to us, from the Arctic to Africa,” he said in a statement, “And by investing in our infrastructure.”
“China does not share our values. It does not respect fundamental human rights and tries to intimidate other countries,” he said.
“We must address this together, both as NATO Allies, and as a community of like-minded countries,” he added.
NATO countries should carry on consulting with each other closely, Stoltenberg also said, and co-operate when feasible to protect shared norms and values.
To manage China’s diversified approach to warfare Carter said the West now needs to develop a long-term strategic policy based on containment and deterrence.
He also said that this “complex geostrategic context” is why Britain launched its Integrated Operating Concept in late September, which calls into question the traditional approach to armed force and sets out a new and flexible approach to warfare.
“What this Concept does is to recognise that our rivals seek to win without resorting to war—so we need to be structured to outmatch them—while being able to adapt to war fight if necessary,” Carter said.
Johnson’s extra military spending is part of a new focus on cyber defence for Britain and is the country’s biggest investment in defence since the cold war that ended 30 years ago in 1991.