Almost 200 years ago, as recounted in Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck remarked to the Russian ambassador in Berlin his fundamental thoughts on international relations: “All politics reduce themselves to this formula: try to be a trois in a world governed by five powers.” Bismarck was not using a literal expression; his point was that every state maneuvers itself to be on the side with the preponderance of power whenever possible.
While his statement is as realpolitik as it gets, there is wisdom in it. In East Asia, the U.S. “hub-and-spoke” alliance system closely resembles Bismarck’s thinking, especially the United States’ military alliances with Japan and South Korea. While it is no secret the United States is working toward closer military cooperation with and between the aforementioned Asian powerhouses, it is equally clear the three partners continually face adversity in improving their comprehensive trilateral defense cooperation. Despite its potential boon to regional security, a more formal military arrangement between the three nations has revealed itself to be politically redoubtable.
Knowing this, if Bismarck were chancellor of the United States today and he sought a new regional player as trois, where would he cast his gaze for a friend who could both pack and take a punch? There is Australia, but its political distance from the East Asian theater presents problems — for now. Other regional players currently lack the technical know-how and/or political will to comply with mutual defense needs beyond their own territory.
Therefore, Bismarck would likely conclude the best chance to solidify his goal would be to look outside the theater. And as fate would have it, a new actor is preparing to strut and fret its way upon the East Asian stage in the near future, but is by no means a rookie to the region. The United Kingdom has been making some strategically interesting moves in recent years, which indicate its growing interest in the East Asian region and the Pacific’s resurgence among European thinkers as an area of vital national interest. It is not difficult to see why a region which contains 60 percent of the world’s population, nine of the world’s ten busiest trading ports, and the top three economies in the world is a vital interest to an island nation whose existence depends on world trade. The U.K., once the premier economic, naval, and military regional power in previous centuries, has made some welcome advances in declaring its renewed interest in the region.
Foremost of these advances was the deployment of Typhoon fighter aircraft to Misawa Air Base, Japan in October 2016, in what a Royal Air Force officer called “probably the most ambitious deployment that the [Royal] Air Force has done to the Far East.” Japan’s Ministry of Defense commented, “The purpose of this exercise is to enhance tactical skills of Japan air self-defense force unit and strengthen Japan-U.K. defense cooperation.” While the ministry concluded its statement with “We have no specific country or region in our mind,” on November 6, after completing the exercise, the Typhoons headed directly to South Korea to participate in a U.S.-U.K.-South Korea exercise. This U.K. fighter activity is both unprecedented and significant, and displays relationship inroads that could be leveraged for more formal regional military arrangements in the future.
Second, the United Kingdom has clearly stated its intentions to deploy its newest aircraft carriers (and accompanying battle group) to East Asia. U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson stated in Sydney on July 27, 2017 that “One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to [the Asia-Pacific Region] to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.” Whether or not London will go through with this remains to be seen, but the willingness to send its newest carriers to the region indicates a U.K. with a revitalized defense interest there.
This revitalized defense interest can be expected to protect urgent economic interests, just as it did several hundred years ago. As the United Kingdom finds itself in the throes of its Brexit deliberations, it will need new markets and trading partners beyond Europe as soon as Brexit completes — and Asia is a place familiar to British trade as well as a marketplace of significant consequence in the next few decades. The U.K. has already begun investigating the possibility of joining the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, better known as TPP-11, from which the United States withdrew last January. This trade deal, which is on track for signing and execution sometime this spring or summer, could provide the U.K. with the markets it will desperately need after it loses favored EU trade status once Brexit is concluded.
There are also military advantages the U.K. could bring to the theater. First, its relative dearth of bases in the region allows it to be asymmetrically flexible in a region which, given its size, rewards military flexibility. By being a mobile and primarily naval force, though dependent upon its regional allies for support, the U.K. could revive the old trick of acting as a “fleet in being;” its ability to steam where and when it pleased while possessing no major territory would throw off regional rivals’ military calculus and force them to commit precious reconnaissance assets to monitoring the United Kingdom.
Second, it is spring-loaded to quickly enter more advanced military arrangements. London is already allied to Washington, and has excellent relations with South Korea and Japan. In particular, the U.K. has a historical friendship with Japan; the U.K. and Japan share similar national interests, “island nation” heritage, and the U.K. was Japan’s first formal ally following a formal treaty signed in 1902. Third, the F-35 Lightning II fighters the U.K. carriers are scheduled to bring to the theater are postured to fit right into an interoperable international military force, which the United States, Japan, and South Korea all happen to be acquiring. Additional carrier-borne F-35s would certainly contribute to balancing security troubles in the region.
It is clear the United Kingdom would be a great benefit to stabilizing the security troubles of the region–provided they arrive in a timely manner. The U.K. is not scheduled to receive its first 24 F-35s (of the HMS Queen Elizabeth‘s 36 aircraft compliment) until 2023, and the critical details of support to their forces would have to be worked out, which is no mean feat. Further, the U.K. could deploy one or both of its new carriers to the Gulf region first, slowing an already overall slow buildup in the Indo-Pacific.
In any case, the U.K. will eventually have to turn to the Pacific, for economic reasons if not military ones; and when it does so, it will have friends already waiting at the door.
Major John Wright is a U.S. Air Force officer, pilot, and a Mike and Maureen Mansfield Fellow. He is currently serving as Japan Country Director, International Affairs, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, Honolulu, HI. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and not those of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Government, Mansfield Foundation, or any foreign government.