The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) released its Indo-Pacific Strategy on May 31, 2019 to coincide with the beginning of the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue. France’s Ministry of the Armed Forces released its own report, titled “France and security in the Indo-Pacific,” several days earlier. Both nations, along with the United Kingdom, sent large delegations to attend the prestigious regional summit; however, there was a clear absence of a similar British policy paper on the region.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue, U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan emphasized the core messages from the DOD report, which were: working with partners in the region on all levels; ensuring ready interoperable military forces; and, in relation, improving networks with all allies in the region. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, along with the wider U.S. National Defense Strategy, has flaws, but as Shanahan stated, “we [the U.S.] have a plan.” Similarly, Florence Parly, the French minister for the armed forces, highlighted her country’s policy paper themes: protecting French exclusive economic zones (EEZ); addressing regional security challenges with a significant French military presence; ensuring free trade and communication lines; and maintaining the multilateral world order.
Britain’s secretary of state for defense, Penny Mordaunt, echoed her U.S. and French counterparts’ statements in her speech, but without a published policy paper, and perhaps a military deployment — Parly informed Mordaunt that the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier strike group was docked in Singapore while there was an absence of Royal Navy ships — her speech and answers to questions from journalists and analysts had less of an impact than her counterparts’ speeches.
This is not to say that Britain has no presence in the Indo-Pacific. As Mordaunt noted, four Royal Navy ships — HMS Sutherland, HMS Albion, HMS Argyll, and HMS Montrose — deployed to the region in 2018 for freedom of navigation patrols and exercises with many regional partners. These ships sailed as far as Japan, a country highlighted as the U.K.’s strategic partner in the region. The Gurkha battalion based in Brunei has exercised with regional partners such as Malaysia and New Zealand, on top of its security tasks for Brunei’s Sultan. There have been regular visits and deployments to the region, especially for Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA) exercises. The United Kingdom has set up a British Defense Staff (Asia Pacific) post to enhance defense engagement in the region. This – along with a growing number of defense attaches in Asian capital cities — will assist in maintaining a British approach toward the Indo-Pacific. Beyond defense, the Foreign Office, the Department for International Trade (DIT), and other departments help sustain British presence in the region.
These all are credible examples of British policy, yet there does not appear to be a united approach. On the financial and economic side, the U.K. appears to be siding with the region’s security disruptor, China. When he was prime minister, David Cameron hosted a state visit for China’s President Xi Jinping and hailed a golden era of U.K.-China relations while Prime Minister Theresa May has planned involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. When former Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that HMS Queen Elizabeth will deploy to the South China Sea, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond voiced disagreement and had to cancel a crucial meeting in Beijing. More recently, May endorsed Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei to build core components of the U.K.’s 5G network, in opposition to British intelligence reports and leading to the firing of Williamson. This approach, seemingly in opposition to U.K. defense engagements and freedom of navigation patrols, creates a disjointed British policy. A policy or white paper could straighten out the government’s vision toward the region.
The lack of any clear policy in print results in a lack of strategic broadcasting. As noted above, the U.K. has an enduring military presence in the region, even though it may not be of constant levels. Another core example is the logistics depot in Singapore, officially known as Naval Party 1022 or British Defense Singapore Support Unit (BDSSU). This small unit refuels Royal Navy and allied warships and is a key component of the U.K.’s contribution to the FPDA. Despite its extremely essential role, there is little mention of it on government news sites or British media, mostly just in the monthly publication of Royal Navy news. U.K. defense officials have also increased their numbers and presence in conferences like the Fullerton Lecture. Yet, the Ministry of Defense (MOD) and Cabinet Office have not capitalized on the increased attendance with any publication policy document or even a set policy points. As Euan Graham, executive director of La Trobe Asia noted to Secretary Mordaunt, the proposed sending of warships like the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers has to be accompanied by a set of policies that addresses China’s aggressive rise and activities in the Indo-Pacific.
The publication of a U.K. Indo-Pacific strategy could also strengthen the government’s definition of Global Britain. This term has been touted much by British government officials, attempting to indicate that the U.K. will still engage with all nations and project its influence after it leaves the European Union (EU). Think thanks like the East-West Center, the Henry Jackson Society, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies have published ideas for what a Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific region might look like. But these are all individual assertions, and without any written policy or statement, there cannot be a concrete indication of an outward-looking Britain.
Perhaps there cannot be any U.K. policy paper at this moment. First, as noted, there is not a whole-of-government approach toward the region, with the Treasury and DIT favoring friendly relations with China for trade and financial links. This is contrasted with the MOD and perhaps Foreign Office, who wish to address China’s expansionist policies in the South China Sea and human rights abuses. Second, there is no clear indication of any Global Britain approach by the U.K., let alone any idea for a regional policy paper. Third, the U.K. has internal political challenges to first overcome — it has not officially left the EU and a new prime minister has yet to be selected to succeed May. A new PM would, of course, result in a new Cabinet, which may yet produce a regional policy paper. Fourth, the next Strategic Defense and Security Review will shortly be published, and this will most likely indicate the new government’s policy toward the region in written format.
There has been, and will continue to be, a British presence in the Indo-Pacific, from military deployments and engagement to diplomatic overtures, as well as trade and financial agreements. This approach may not be a commonly aligned; however, there at least is some form of approach. The United Kingdom can continue this approach for the near future, but without a written, concrete approach that aligns all government departments toward the Indo-Pacific, the U.K. may risk being a lower-tier player in this challenging region.
Li Jie Sheng is a freelance research analyst with interests in Southeast Asian political economy, wider global political economy, multilateral organizations, and international development.