Not that long ago, the Prime Minister would demand from military and intelligence chiefs at meetings of the National Security Council that “something must be done” about Syria; this apparently rose in volume and urgency in the sessions after Samantha Cameron had visited a refugee camp across the border in Lebanon.
All that stopped after the Government’s Commons defeat on military strikes due to take place after Bashar al-Assad’s crossing of the ‘red-line’, the chemical attack in Ghouta. Since then, Britain has scaled back on the supply of even ‘non-lethal’ supplies to the opposition as well as refusing to take its share of refugees from Syria – people driven out of their homes in an uprising this country repeatedly encouraged, those whose plight had so distressed ‘SamCam’.
Syria is not the only place about which Downing Street is now lukewarm. Little mention is made about what will happen in Afghanistan when troops pull out, or of the return of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, something directly linked to the Syrian violence; no real interest in the states collapsing in Africa; hardly any reference to the vision of Britain’s role in the changing global order the Coalition was so enthusiastic about when it came into office
Mr Cameron is now firmly focused on the strategic menace posed by Romanian and Bulgarian beggars. His last ‘hotline’ call was not to Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, but to his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, to be told off about the threat to withdraw child benefit from Polish immigrants. His ministers, meanwhile, are busy attacking Blackadder’s lack of patriotic fervour for the First World War.
We need to turn from Blackadder to Voldemort to look at a far more important unfolding scenario in geopolitics. The evil wizard with whom Harry Potter regularly does battle was used by Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, to describe the malignant spirit of Japanese imperialism, part of a round of increasingly bitter accusations and recriminations between the two countries.
Mr Liu’s attack, in a newspaper article, came after the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, visited the Yakusuni shrine in Tokyo, where convicted war criminals are honoured. The shrine, according to Mr Liu, was a veritable horcrux (a place in which the character of Lord Voldemort hides pieces of the soul to prolong his life).
After decades of approaching the media in a stilted, formulaic way akin to meeting targets for tractor production in a five-year plan, the Chinese foreign ministry has made a great leap forward on public relations. Its diplomats are now far more proactive, armed, as we see, with a lexicon of popular Western culture. The Japan’s ambassador Keiichi Hayashi was not to be outdone, insisting that it was, in fact, Beijing which was the real “Voldemort in the region by letting loose the evil of an arms race and escalation of tensions.”
It is not just a Sino-Japanese problem in the Far East. The cause of discord – ownership of islands in the South China Sea and maritime boundaries – also involves Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. Countries outside the region, the United States and India, have also been drawn in, forming, in Beijing’s view, a hostile coalition.
The territorial claims have been couched in terms of historic sovereignty. There are, of course, strong commercial imperatives: resources underwater, gas, oil and fishing, as well as control of some of the busiest international shipping lanes in the world.
Japanese rearmament and the flexing of its military muscle, along with the American military’s expanding presence in the Pacific Rim, are pointed out as a source of grave concern by the Chinese. Mr Abe has pledged to make changes to the post-war constitution restricting deployment of forces abroad. He has offered the Indians the US-2 amphibious aircraft for sale to entice it into an alliance; Japan has recently launched a helicopter-carrier, and announced that its ageing F-4 and F-14 fighter-bombers will be replaced by the American F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The US has moved marines to Australia, announced new plans to send warships and combat aircraft, carried out exercises with states in dispute with China and, along with Japan, tested Beijing’s newly set up ‘Air Defence Zones’ with overflights.
All this does not mean that we are about to see, as Mr Liu may put it, the ultimate Battle of Hogwarts. For all the talk of Japanese militarism, its forces are small compared to those of some of its neighbours, the army – half the size of South Korea’s and a tenth that of China, which also has an air force and navy, three and four times larger in size.
The advantage the Chinese have on quantity is lost on quality. Their equipment is far less advanced than the Japanese and are not in a position to embark on even a limited conflic at present: the odds become insurmountable with American involvement.
The offensive by both Tokyo and Beijing is rather one of diplomacy and propaganda. The Japanese Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida, went to Spain and France last week to drum up support and he is expected to visit UK in the near future. Similar overtures to the West are being made by the Chinese, with the carrot of possible trade deals as the economy heads towards being the largest in the world.
Mr Cameron has made two trips to China to try and drum up exports. But there are a whole host of issues in this region with which other countries are becoming engaged – Japan for example is offering to work with France in Africa. The question for the UK is whether it wants to look back on 1914, or face the challenges brought by the 21st century.