By John Hemmings —
This year has been marked by the return of British naval power to the Indo-Pacific. For the first time since 2013, the United Kingdom (UK) deployed warships to the region, not only consecutively deploying three vessels to the area, but also increasing its cross-service defense engagement with regional partners. First, HMS Albion carried out a freedom of navigation maneuver near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, making the UK the only non-claimant state – other than the United States – to openly challenge China’s excessive maritime claims; second, it took part in marine exercises with Japanese Self Defense Forces in Japan; and third, it expanded its trilateral relationship with Japan and the United States in an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercise off the coast of the Philippines in early 2019. However, the relative success of these operations has not stopped questions being asked both inside the UK and in the region around their long-term sustainability – particularly in the wake of Russia’s 2014 take-over of the Crimea, its hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine, and with the 2018 Skripal poisonings. All of this has produced an intense domestic debate over the future of Britain’s global posture, ranging from the government forward-leaning, Mahanian “Global Britain” position, to an “honest-broker” approach that attempts to sail precariously between the U.S.-China trade rift.
While it is true that Brexit has propelled a core part of the Conservative Party toward the notion of Global Britain, it should also be noted that a major shift took place in UK strategic thinking from 2014, which saw neo-authoritarian military revanchism in the Crimea and the South China Sea. China’s island-building in international waters had a profound impact on Britain, given its long history of safeguarding the principle of the freedom of the seas. The 2014 National Strategy for Maritime Security, for example, noted, “The UK has significant political and economic interests in the Asia Pacific…it is important that all nations in the region resolve any maritime disputes peacefully and within the rule of law, while protecting and promoting freedom of navigation and trade.” At the Shangri-la Dialogue in 2015, Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon raised Britain’s concern about “the scale and speed of current land reclamation activities and the risk that these actions may pose to maritime freedom of navigation and to the stability of the South China Sea.”
Aside from the Royal Navy deployments, the UK has infused new urgency into what were steadily-growing political and security bilaterals with major regional players. Previously, many of these relationships puttered along, but lacked an overarching strategic logic. Now it would appear that Britain’s foreign and military policy establishment has linked the Global Britain vision with the “free-and-open” Indo-Pacific strategies of the region. In its Joint Ministerial 2+2 with Australia in July 2018, the UK foreign secretary and defence secretary agreed to “protect and promote the rules-based system,” while increasing cooperation and coordination over the South China Sea, within the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), seeking “opportunities for deeper maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.” The agreement was marked by Australia’s decision to purchase a British design for its Hunter Class frigates. At $26 billion, the deal is a highly-promising indicator for sustained defense collaboration, given the strong political pull of maintaining Britain’s impressive defense industrial capability (British shipbuilding, aerospace, and defense industries bring in revenues of $40 billion, exceeding even Russia’s $31 billion).
That defense industrial pull has also helped fuel UK-Japan collaboration – on the Meteor missile, for example – with both states promoting what some have called, “the closest security ties since the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance.” In addition to defense collaboration, a regular cyber dialogue, and increasing intelligence-sharing, there has been a seismic shift in strategic dialogue. On January 10, 2019, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visited London, welcoming the UK’s increased presence in the Indo-Pacific, and reiterating his support for the UK’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The two sides pledged to collaborate further on infrastructure, 5G telecoms, cyber security, and maritime security.
In addition, London has also begun re-investing in its relations with South and Southeast Asia. UK officials made it a diplomatic priority last May to get Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India to attend the Commonwealth summit. His appearance and red-carpet treatment seemed to indicate a “reset” in ties. More recently, Britain has begun delinking its ASEAN policy from the European Union, welcoming Secretary General Dato Lim Jock Hoi to London this past month. As with Modi, the British policy class rolled out the red carpet, with Minister of State for Asia Mark Field, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, and a number of prime ministerial trade envoys meeting with the SG. As Field pointed out at during the gala dinner banquet, UK investment in ASEAN exceeds its investment in China and India combined, with ASEAN ranking as the third largest investor in the UK, with UK exports surging by 19 percent in 2017 alone.
Sustaining the momentum
China’s rise has seen it using that newfound power to implement shifts to the global order that favor its own strategic interests. It is no surprise that many regional states – allies and partners like Japan, Australia, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam – have emphasized the rules-based system in their pleas for a UK return to Asia. Given Russian revanchism closer to home, UK policymakers have framed the China’s behavior as a wider struggle. There are real questions about how sustainable all of this is, given the volatile nature of Britain’s domestic situation. However, Global Britain is in many ways an adroit repurposing of the UK’s strategic direction after 2014. These drivers have economic as well as strategic weight, something that should make them “Brexit-proof” in the long term.
In terms of how the UK engages with regional partners, the fact is there are a number of directions that British power could go in Asia. As a recent Henry Jackson Society report recommended, Britain could create a policy of collective freedom of navigation maneuvers by using a “ship-rider” program, with NATO or ASEAN flag officers aboard British hulls. It could also suggest a “plane-rider” program, putting British officers aboard U.S. and Japanese surveillance aircraft. Most of all, it could help internationalize and multilateralize the issue so that it is not obscured by U.S.-China strategic competition. The South China Sea, after all, accounts for transit of nearly one-third of total global maritime trade. And that is just as much a UK issue as it is an American one.