As the United Kingdom prepares to exit the European Union (EU) in March, Prime Minister Theresa May and her senior ministers have been long-planning a global role for the UK that includes the Far East.
In 2016, Prime Minister May and then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson floated the idea of a Global Britain in the post-Brexit era. Global Britain envisages a reinvigorated role for the UK in the Indo-Pacific, a term that was appropriated from the Trump Administration by British Secretaries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Trade to align the UK more closely with the United States.
In 2017, the UK’s Ambassador to the U.S., Kim Darroch , stated that the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, would visit the Indo-Pacific to “protect freedom of navigation and keep sea routes and air routes open.” In a speech in Australia that year Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the Royal Navy would send the HMS Queen Elizabeth and its sister ship HMS Prince of Wales to the South China Sea in 2020. Late the next year, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord also stated that the HMS Queen Elizabeth would deploy to the region in the 2020s.
British officials argue that the UK’s foreign policy has been tied too narrowly and for too long to Europe. Britain’s exit from the EU provides a new opportunity to think globally as the UK goes it alone. Global Britain aims to promote economic and defense linkages with what some pundits call the coalition of Asia’s maritime democracies – Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
On December 30 last year, Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Defence, said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph:
This [Brexit] is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play.
For so long – literally for decades – so much of our national viewpoint has actually been colored by a discussion about the European Union.
This is our moment to be that true global player once more – and I think the armed forces play a really import role as part of that.
I am very much looking at how we can get as much of our resources forward based, actually creating a deterrent but also taking a British presence. We are looking at those opportunities not just in the Far East but also in the Caribbean as well.
During the interview Williamson revealed plans to open a military base in the Far East “within the next couple of years.” British defense officials privately told The Daily Telegraph that Brunei and Singapore were under consideration. The UK currently maintains a small logistics facility at Sembawang Naval Base in Singapore known as the British Defence Singapore Support Unit or Naval Party 1022.
The UK’s plans to establish a military base in Southeast Asia in the future reflects growing UK defense engagement in the region in recent years and builds on the UK’s long-standing commitment to the 1971 Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) involving the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand.
Secretary of Defence Williamson told the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June last year that the UK would demonstrate its solidarity with the “rules-based system” in the region’s waters by sending Royal Navy warships there to focus on the threats from North Korea. “We have to make it clear that nations need to play by the rules and that there are consequences for it doing so,” said Williamson.
In August 2018, Mark Field, the UK’s Foreign Office Minister for Asia, and the Pacific, told an audience in Jakarta that Britain was committed to an enduring security presence in Asia and urged countries to respect freedom of navigation and international law in the South China Sea.
Royal Navy Ship Visits
The last time Royal Navy warships visited the Far East was in 2013 when the destroyer HMS Daring deployed for nine months to take part in the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Royal Australian Navy, participate in FPDA-hosted Exercise Bersama Lima, and conduct science and technology trials in the Pacific. Also that year, HMS Illustrious assisted in humanitarian relief following Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines.
In 2018, in a development unprecedented since the Korean War, the UK dispatched three Royal Navy warships to “the Far East,” HMS Albion, an amphibious assault ship; HMS Sutherland, an anti-submarine warfare frigate; and HMS Argyll, a frigate.
HMS Argyll was deployed to Japan. HMS Sutherland visited Australia before sailing to South Korea. Both frigates participated in naval patrols to enforce United Nations trade sanctions against North Korea. The UK is a member of the United Nations Command that has been operational since the Korean War ended in 1953.
HMS Argyll and HMS Sutherland participated in naval exercises with Japan, South Korea and the United States. HMS Albion visited Australia and New Zealand and participated in an FPDA naval exercise.
In mid-2018 the Royal Navy combined with a French Navy Task Group, to conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. In late August, the HMS Albion left Japan and conducted a freedom of navigation patrol in waters near the Paracel islands while transiting to Ho Chi Minh City for a friendly port visit. Recent joint exercises with the U.S. Navy additionally underlined the Royal Navy’s regional presence.
There are three main drivers behind the UK’s decision to re-engage with the Indo-Pacific Region.
First, in the post-Brexit era, the UK must develop new policies and new roles as an independent actor freed from the constraints of membership in the EU. The Indo-Pacific presents opportunities for the United Kingdom to contribute to the region’s stability and thus enhance global security by supporting a rules-based international order. Up to 12 percent of UK’s trade transits the South China Sea.
This translates into supporting UN sanctions on North Korea and upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in concert with allies such as the United States, Australia and other members of the FPDA, as well as security partners Japan and South Korea.
Second, the UK must seize the opportunities offered by the economic and commercial growth of the Indo-Pacific region as the main contributor to global growth. This translates into negotiating free trade agreements with Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam as well as accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Third, defense engagement with the Indo-Pacific entails demonstrating the global reach of the Royal Navy, Britain’s advanced military technology, and the UK’s reliability as a security partner. Allied to this are UK arms sales. In the period 2013-2017, the UK was the world’s the sixth largest arms exporter. In 2017, the UK posted $11.3 billion in overseas military sales with Indonesia the third largest recipient after Saudi Arabia and Oman. In June 2018, the UK signed a $26 billion procurement deal with Australia to supply nine UK-designed anti-submarine warfare frigates to be built in Australia.