Britain's Asia Comeback?
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Britain's Asia Comeback?


If you believe the rhetoric, Britain is coming back as a security player in Asia.

It may not be exactly a reversal of the 1971 East (from London’s perspective) of Suez withdrawal. But on January 18th British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary William Hague are due to visit Perth, Western Australia, to talk to their Australian counterparts about – among other things – how these two nations can support each other’s security in the Asian century. 

And it is not only Australia that seems comfortable with seeing a bit more of the Union Jack West of Suez. Curiously, Japan's new prime minister – who is not known for his fussiness about historical sensitivities – recently invited, “Britain and France to stage a comeback in terms of participating in strengthening Asia’s security.” According to Abe, “The sea-faring democracies in Japan’s part of the world would be much better off with their renewed presence.”

Yet serious questions have to be asked about what Britain, or indeed Europe more generally, can really do shape or respond to the strategic situation in Indo-Pacific Asia.

There are questions of capacity and capability.  As senior Australian security expert Ross Babbage reminds us, Britain's 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review cut its defense budget by 8 percent, several major defense capabilities are being phased out and 20,000 personnel could be retired from Britain's armed forces. (Of course, Australia is less explicably facing its own drastic defense cuts too.) Britons, it would seem, are not inclined to maintain, let alone expand, their military clout. There are even some who doubt the long-term future of the British submarine-launched nuclear deterrent, not least because of the financial commitment  involved with maintaining it.

There are also questions about the great dispersal of Britain's self-styled global security interests and challenges. Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa remain central concerns. In the case of Afghanistan, it is about achieving a relatively orderly withdrawal.  In those other places, it's about contemplating, however reluctantly, the possibility of supporting military responses that London would not itself initiate, from Iran to Syria to Mali. And for much of the British public, these will pale as priorities compared to restoring the nation’s – and Europe’s – economic health.

So while British Defense Secretary Hammond might “welcome” America’s Asia pivot and its apparent willingness to respond China's growing power, the real question is what tangible support Britain will be willing to bring to bear to increase the effectiveness of that strategy.

For instance, while Britain may voice strong support for the U.S.-led chorus of regional views in favor of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, nobody is suggesting that it is considering returning to a hard security role in the region. Would we see British troops on the ground in a future Korean crisis? And as for the longstanding Five Power Defense Arrangement, made up of Britain, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand, I have not seen as of late a compelling explanation of what purpose it serves.

To be sure, British diplomacy and intelligence remain influence multipliers in Asia, for instance in support of stability and counterterrorism in South Asia or encouraging a favorable outcome to the political transformation of Burma, that strategic gateway state in the Indo-Pacific land corridor. Britain and other major European trading nations also have legitimate stakes in stability in the South China Sea, and the European experience may offer positive guidance for Asia in its fitful efforts to build a workable security multilateralism.

But will Britain or Europe make a critical difference in Asia’s next security crisis?  For better or worse, I doubt it.

January 21, 2013 at 16:06

INDEED, Very Well said. :)

January 21, 2013 at 09:45

Have you checked the map of South China Seas and see who grabbed the most rocks?  It is Vietnam, by far. 

January 21, 2013 at 02:51

Oh, that's why the Brits are digging for crates of "lost" Spitfires from WWII in Burma (they haven't found any yet) LOL

Leonard R.
January 20, 2013 at 21:28

It makes historical sense for UK to take up some slack for the US Fifth Fleet. India & UK can control the seas between Singapore & Karachi. The US & Japan can stare down China in the West Philippines & East Sea. It all lines up pretty well.
The Atlantic is peaceful. Why shouldn't UK play a part where it's needed? The Royal Navy has always been where the action is. There is no reason why that can't be true today. As for France? It is already teaming up with UK on its submarine fleet. 

January 20, 2013 at 19:43

China has to be willing to play that role. China may infact want to be a warmonger, we really don't know.
The PLA cound be willing to treat this as an opportunity to gain greater control in the region. Does China truly want to be a peacemaker?
Do we know?

January 20, 2013 at 19:09

I disagree about your comment regarding France needing help from the rest of NATO. From whai I have been reading, France just went into Mali by themselves for the most part to push back the al Qaeda terrorists. Now, with the UNSC vote in, the African Union is preparing troops to send into Mali to rid the country of al Qaeda for good!
To me, France felt they didn't have time to wait, so they just went in on their own with members of the regular Mali armed forces to help their former colony.

January 20, 2013 at 18:30

I think the writer of this article totally missed the point about why Britain is interested in improving defense ties with Australia here. The whole issue really is more about the strategic cooperation in the region in keeping the SCS and ECS as stable waterways, because much of Britain's commerce also travels back and forth in this region as well. Plus, Britain has stated themselves that Australia demonstrated its own vital importance to the war in Afganistan since first sending Aussie troops to fight the war on terrorism. That alone speaks volumes as to why a British move to improve ties in Asia is important! Australia and America are friends after all!
Not only is Britain showing an interest in increased defensive ties towards Asian stability, but we also see other EU nations such as France and Germany looking at the value of close cooperative ties in the region as well! Such ties is generally thought of as a threat by the Chinese and all I have to say is too bad! Perhaps the CCP should have placed much work into its one-time 'peaceful & harmonious' rhetoric, instead of becoming the regional bully that they have become in Asia today!
The message by Britain is simple, any tensions in Asia that engage the interests of NATO countries can simply be to contribute intelligence, cooperation, rescue ops, missiles, or possibly a British aircraft carrier in the future if required! The imporatance here is the relationships formed when Australia committed combat troops in Afganistan, now the countries of NATO see how important that relationship could be in Asia in the future!
That's what is most important here is Britain's show of support to Australia! As important as Australia showed its support in Afganistan!

January 20, 2013 at 08:50

I wouldn't be so black and white as to rule that they are long gone. And perfect doesn't exist in our dirty world.

January 20, 2013 at 01:09

Never underestimate Europe.

Julian G
January 19, 2013 at 23:57

You are a joke. Believing that you can turn back the clock and portray your country as a strong power again? Gaelic power is confined only to Paris. Go anywhere past your border, you will be turned away. You really believed the days when France, Britain and for that fact any European nation or combined European nation can come back to Asia? The day that happens is when the Chinese and the Koreans accept the Japanese' explanations for WWII. 
You are an idiot.

January 19, 2013 at 17:03

Yes. The looted wealth of Asia funded the industrial revolution of the west, though they dont admit it.

January 19, 2013 at 16:54

China is unpredictable, which in terms brings maturity and responsibility to the decisions. In spite of all achievements, China lacks credibility on this area.

January 19, 2013 at 15:23

I think it's high time for Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and others to join SCO. The SCO should expand to cover all of europe.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief