IN writing last week about the West’s supply of tanks to Ukraine, I suggested it might be interesting to examine further the sensitivities surrounding Germany’s involvement. After what has been described as weeks of dithering and debate, Berlin has now given in to pressure from its western partners, including the US, and agreed to send 14 German-made tanks to the beleaguered nation. This is significant not only because Germany is a member of NATO but, as the bloc’s largest economy, it dominates the European Union and manufactures most of the heavy tanks deployed in Europe.
In view of this, many believe that, after earlier doubts about Berlin’s commitment to defeating Russia in Ukraine because of its reluctance to supply weapons and other military support, Germany should step up to the plate and play a full role in such supply, not least to fulfill the need for NATO to show solidarity in standing up to Russian aggression and defending democracy.
Accused of moral and physical cowardice and vilified for not positively opposing Putin, Germany has been accused of dragging its feet about supplying Leopold 2 tanks – and even preventing some fifteen other European countries from re-exporting them to Ukraine. As I mentioned last week, Germany apparently refused initially to contribute weapons amid fears of provoking a wider war with Russia and retaliation that could include use of nuclear weapons and because of the country’s dependence at the time on Russian gas.
All this has been against the background of a troubled history of war in Europe in which Germany was the aggressor in two world conflicts. Following its surrender that brought the Second World War to an end in 1945, clearly nobody wanted to see the country re-emerge as a military power, let alone the Germans themselves who were burdened by the weight of responsibility and guilt over Nazi war crimes. In a divided nation, the new East Germany became part of the Soviet bloc. In the endless debate about a new national identity, West Germany, with its capital in Bonn, adopted pacifism as a guiding principle in its foreign relations and maintained that stance for decades while sheltering under the umbrella of NATO which it joined in 1955 on the condition that as a country it participated in collective support of common ideals. This marked the nation’s rehabilitation after the evil of Hitler’s Third Reich. Later, after reunification of the two parts of Germany, policy was based on the need for close ties with Russia, in particular deepening trade relations, as the best path to peace in Europe.
It is said that less than a year ago any idea of a German government supplying arms to an active conflict would have been unthinkable – let alone sending tanks into the same areas in Europe which the German army had crushed and where it had committed atrocities following its invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
However, after taking a back seat for years in its reluctance since the end of the Second World War to take the lead - or participate - in military activity, under Germany’s new coalition government there now seems to be the dawn of a new era following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that could result in the nation playing a leading role in protecting Europe.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has called the ending of a seventy-decades-long policy of non-aggression a “watershed era”. He has said the issue is whether “power should be allowed to prevail over the law” – and, reportedly, Germany is now investing in its depleted and outdated military infrastructure while it is beginning to take a more assertive role in European defence, much to the delight of its allies.
Predictably, in response to Scholz’s decision to join with other countries in sending tanks, Putin is now saying that eighty years since the bloody but decisive Battle of Stalingrad, Russians are now facing them again as history is repeating itself and they are fighting Nazism once more in Ukraine. Speaking last week in Volgograd – the modern name for Stalingrad – to mark the anniversary of this battle, which was a major turning point of the war with the Soviet army capturing over 90,000 German troops, Putin hinted that he could seek to move beyond conventional weapons. But, as recorded in this column last week, the current judgment in the West seems to be that such threats by him to use nuclear weapons are intended to intimidate and are largely no more than rhetoric because of his fear of retaliation by the West that could result in mutual annihilation.
With the background of history uppermost in the minds of Germany’s leaders, it comes as no surprise that the Chancellor was reluctant to become involved in the supply of tanks unless others did so, in particular the US. But, with Germany apparently finally deciding that its traditional constraints on any sort of activity in the military sphere can now be lifted in relation to European security, people will hope that its contribution will have a decisive effect on the outcome of the war.
US relations with China take turn for worse
Even before the “spy in the sky” balloon drama of recent days, bilateral relations between the US and China were said to be at a low ebb amidst fraying tensions; and, as one press headline put it, the balloon saga will only “deflate” efforts to mend them. For some, the incident marks a new low for US-China ties.
Much of the comment in the UK press cynically wonders at the duplicity surrounding the incident; not least because the Chinese were conciliatory at first and expressed regret, saying it was a weather ship blown astray and its appearance over America was a deviation from its route because of bad weather so that the whole thing was “an accident”. Then, China urged “cool-headed handling” of the incident and dispute, saying it “would not accept conjecture or hype” and it accused US politicians and the media of using this “as a pretext to attack and smear China”.
Later, it condemned the US shooting down of its airship as “a serious violation of international practice”. But Secretary of State Blinken called it a surveillance balloon and stated its presence over American sovereign territory was an “irresponsible act”, with the Pentagon saying the balloon was being used “to surveil strategic sites”. Commentators are noting the widely-held public belief that a number of countries, including the US, carry out surveillance of others but not so blatantly. The evidence presented in the media looks to be all too clear, and there will doubtless be endless speculation over the coming days before something else grabs international attention and the 24-hour news cycle turns to other issues.
Meanwhile, there must surely be growing general concern in the rest of the world about the poor state of US-China relations. China is now being labelled the US’s principal adversary.
The Director of the CIA reports that President Xi Jinping’s ambitions towards Taiwan should not be underestimated since there is evidence he has ordered his military to be ready to invade the island by 2027. He has also warned that, while China has refrained from condemning Russia’s operation against Ukraine, its economic links with Russia have boomed as connections with the West have shrivelled. Some people are also calling China a belligerent bully indulging in reckless and provocative behaviour in different countries; and one striking illustration of this was its squabble with Australia when the latter questioned the origins of coronavirus.
It is also now being widely contended that China is emerging as a fresh threat to the West on various other fronts – for example, economically in relation to the continuing theft of intellectual property and the US need to limit Beijing’s access to sensitive technology as, reportedly, it applies new restrictions on advanced chip manufacturing equipment. But, as China becomes a significant military power, perhaps the greatest danger is its attempt to redraw the map of the South China Sea with the construction of new artificial island bases.
In this context, it was interesting to read last week that the US had now secured a deal with the Philippines for access to military bases there. This will complete an arc around China of US alliances with countries like South Korea and Japan in the north to Australia in the south from which to monitor Chinese activity in the South China Sea that is seen as threatening the region. The island of Luzon in the north of the Philippines is the nearest piece of land to Taiwan (apart from China itself). But the US has said it is not seeking new permanent bases but places it can occupy temporarily as needed where its presence may help to deter further Chinese expansion - while, amidst increasing concern about conflict over Taiwan, it provides the means to watch China’s movements there. Furthermore, the US has reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands in a move widely seen as shoring up its influence in the Pacific and advancing partnership deals with the aim of keeping it an area where “democracy can flourish”.
It has likewise been interesting to study recent remarks by British Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, about what he terms Britain’s new “Indo-Pacific tilt”.
It is now clear that the UK government fully recognises the strategic importance of the region to the UK’s economy and society and to its interests more broadly, with 1.7 million British citizens living across the Indo-Pacific and trade relationships worth over $250 billion while 60 per cent of global trade passes through shipping routes in the region. Mr Cleverly also mentioned that, even though China is a global player and a driver of economic growth, when it departs from global rules and norms and aligns itself with aggressive countries like Russia, its standing in the world suffers.
He went on to say that Britain wants to work with friends and partners to address world challenges and not ‘turn a blind eye’ to repression – and it will be concentrating its efforts in the Indo-Pacific to a greater extent than in the past.
First hundred days of new British Prime Minister
It is said that the significance of the first 100 days in office of political leaders dates back to Franklin D Roosevelt’s US presidency in the 1930s. Such a period of about three months is considered sufficient to provide an indication of a leader’s management style, priorities and how campaign promises may be fulfilled.
The verdict on the recent completion of the milestone by British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, appears to be mixed.
All agree that this has been a torrid time for him.
But at least he has survived without a leadership crisis and lasted longer than his unfortunate predecessor who managed only forty-nine days in the job.
The PM seems to have stabilized the economy and got it back on track despite continuing high inflation and rising interest rates. But he has had to face the worst extended industrial unrest in the country since the 1980s and his government is now bracing itself for imminent major strike action by the National Health Service – nurses, paramedics and ambulance drivers – in pursuit of large and unrealistic pay claims. Amongst numerous other problems, he has also had to deal with sleaze scandals within his cabinet, and, as a result of all this, he is facing poor poll ratings.
So, the consensus is that it has been a bumpy ride for him so far.
Many believe that the real test in the coming months will be whether he can deliver on the five priorities he has set himself in both the short and long term – halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and stopping small-boat crossings to the UK from France.
With an election not due until next year, he has time to make real progress on these, with some saying he is already on the right track.
However, others believe he is out of touch with voters, not least because he lacks a mandate from them. But delivering on those priorities will be the key.
The overall realistic verdict appears to be that, if he can achieve this, despite that bumpy start there is the prospect of better times to come -- both for him and the Conservative government he leads.