Britain’s Asia Comeback?

Some are suggesting Britain could once again be a player in Asia’s security landscape.

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.

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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.