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How sustainable is Global Britain’s presence in Asia?

The Royal Navy on 7 September marked the first anniversary of its deployment of two OPVs to the Indo-Pacific region. This milestone provides an opportune moment to assess how successful the UK military’s ‘return’ to the area has been.

HMS Tamar and HMS Spey cumulatively travelled a staggering 80,353nmi across the world’s oceans since they departed the UK and have visited more than 20 ports.

Kudos is due to the RN for sustaining this deployment of these two River-class vessels, and for what they have achieved. For example, Spey delivered aid to Tonga following a tsunami earlier this year, and it also visited such far-flung places as Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. It has been decades (nearly a century in Palau’s case) since the RN visited some of these remote locations in the Pacific.

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Meanwhile, HMS Tamar helped enforce UN sanctions against North Korea for a time, as well as conducting exercises with the likes of Malaysia and Singapore.

Given that the two OPVs did not have a specific home base, the ability to utilise support contractors for maintenance and resupply was impressive. Indeed, the RN trumpeted the ‘huge effect’ of its presence. ‘We proudly carry forward UK interests in this strategic part of the world,’ it enthused.

An RAF A400M transporter sitting on the tarmac in South Korea.

Certainly, the UK has been promoting its efforts. Speaking in Sydney in May, First Sea Lord Adm Ben Key said: ‘Global Britain is back! We come with renewed vigour, and commitment to our friendships and alliances. But we come too with humility. We have much we can do to benefit each other, boosting prosperity, peace and security. And we have much to learn from you.’

Key said that £36 billion ($41.5 billion) in imports/exports pass between the UK and ASEAN alone each year. ‘This is all part of a Global Britain that is confident, outward-looking, that wants to operate, trade and develop together. If my message isn’t clear: the Indo-Pacific is crucial to us.’

The arrival in Asia of the CSG21 Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group was the highlight of Britain’s military presence last year. As HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first operational deployment, it was the largest RN presence in Asia-Pacific for more than a decade.

Otherwise, there have been only occasional visits of British aircraft or vessels to the Indo-Pacific, most often for Five Powers Defence Arrangements (alongside Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore) exercises.

RAF Typhoons from 6 Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth conduct an air-to-air refuelling sortie over the Australian outback on Exercise Pitch Black 2022. (Photo: ADF)

More recently, the RAF sent Typhoons and a Voyager tanker to northern Australia for an air exercise in August-September. The RAF noted: ‘The UK’s contribution to Exercise Pitch Black is designed to be a tangible demonstration of UK airpower, and highlights the UK’s ability to deploy rapidly at long range.’

Furthermore, RAF personnel are currently embedded with the RAAF’s No. 2 Squadron in Australia. Nine technical personnel and 15 aircrew are attached to the Australian Wedgetail unit as they familiarise themselves with the platform.

Nonetheless, the UK’s military posture in Asia-Pacific has been muted for many years, after essentially abdicating nearly all responsibility decades ago. For example, the RN’s last permanent regional presence was vessels stationed in Hong Kong until 1997. Latterly, the only UK military presence in Asia has been ongoing rotations of a Gurkha battalion in Brunei.

A Gurkha of the British Army trains in the humid jungles of Brunei in Southeast Asia.

In contrast, France has been the only European nation to maintain a permanent naval presence in Asia-Pacific. Two Floreal-class surveillance frigates are based in Nouméa and Tahiti respectively, though these will be replaced by more modern vessels in due course. France has also sent regular naval task groups to the Indo-Pacific, and even an SSN through the South China Sea last year.

Despite all the fanfare, the UK’s Indo-Pacific military effort is still much lighter than France’s.

Nonetheless, the UK’s flying of the ensign is welcome to most, and this was a sentiment echoed by Prof Rory Medcalf, Head of National Security College at the Australian National University.

Presenting oral evidence to the Defence Committee, he stated on 6 September: ‘The UK tilt to the Indo-Pacific is, I think, a worthwhile endeavour. It is of a kind with the turn or attention of a number of countries, of global stakeholders, in this region in recent years.

‘The tilt is wisely cautious in the way that it expresses its ambitions. The ambition for the UK to be one of a number of partners making a difference in this region is right – I do not think that anyone here has miraculous assumptions about the UK being, for example, the militarily decisive force in the Indo-Pacific.’

Indeed, London needs to combine its humble military presence with the whole gamut of diplomacy, intelligence, geo-economic engagement and diplomatic solidarity with regional countries.

The RAF sent a Typhoon to LIMA in Malaysia some years ago in the hope of luring Malaysia into buying the fighter.

Medcalf added, ‘I think my main advice, if I were to offer at least an observation from an Australian friend at the moment, is to keep matching aspiration with capability, do not over-promise, and proceed in good company.’

Dr Marcus Hellyer, Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), also testified before the Defence Committee. 

‘I think that we are realist enough to know that UK military assets are not really going to change the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. It is nice to see the visits from the carrier and the Astute submarine, but I think in the longer term the prolonged deployment of the two offshore patrol vessels is more significant because it exposes the UK to the kinds of issues that we have been experiencing now for five, six or seven years.’

In other words, the UK is gaining first-hand experience of those challenges inherent in the Indo-Pacific region. Chief among them is learning what China is really like, and how it is gravely threatening regional stability and trampling upon international law and the rights of others.

Solomon Islands, for example, are now firmly in the grip of China’s orbit, with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare recently banning port visits by a British OPV and a US warship.

Hellyer pointed out: ‘The main thing is to have friends and partners involved on the ground here showing China that its bad behaviour is being noticed. One of the best ways to respond to so-called grey-zone activities is to shine a light on them. Having more liberal democracies around the world involved, seeing it and drawing it to global attention is a good thing, and it would be great for the UK to keep doing that.’

British commandos participate in an exercise in Brunei after deploying with an amphibious task force.

Military tensions in the Indo-Pacific have grown – Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea, China’s threatening antics against Taiwan, an unstable North Korea that routinely sends volleys of ballistic missiles into the sea, Chinese salami-slicing along the Indian border, and Chinese inroads into the Pacific (unduly influencing the likes of Solomon Islands) are all of concern.

But how much attention does Beijing pay the UK?

London might be attempting to be relevant, but the fact is that its diplomatic heft is almost nil in Asia. Certainly, it could do nothing to reverse the slide of its former colony of Hong Kong into a police state.

Furthermore, as the UK contemplates an angry Russia licking its wounds in Ukraine, can the UK afford to keep its presence in Asia going for too much longer?

The UK wants to keep its OPV pair in the region till 2027, by which time they could be supplanted by Type 31 frigates. The UK will also contribute a Littoral Response Group in Oman from 2023, sitting astride the Indian Ocean.

These are all admirable ambitions, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Can the UK really sustain such initiatives when His Majesty’s armed forces are being pared to the bone? Current events in Ukraine will indeed be a test of the determination and staying power of the UK.

Undeniably, the UK’s military power is not a credible one on this side of the world. After the recent Taiwan visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, China encircled Taiwan with naval vessels and unilaterally established exclusion zones, as well as lobbing ballistic missiles over it with gleeful abandon.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seems not to be scared even of the US, which has a massive nearby military presence in Guam, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. It is not like the PLA is going to consider that the UK will tilt the equation in any way.

A small contingent of Royal Marines participated in an Australian exercise several years ago.

There is a strategic contest under way in Asia and the Pacific, with China vying for dominance. The UK can join like-minded partners that are promoting democratic rather than autocratic pathways.

One way that the UK can contribute is by sharing technology, perhaps with Quad or AUKUS partners. Opportunities to share and invest exist, one example being Japan’s quest to develop and build a new-generation fighter, a project that might well end up as a co-development between Tokyo and London.

Another example is Australia’s purchase of the Hunter-class frigate from BAE Systems. Interestingly, the degree of Chinese hysteria about AUKUS shows that this trilateral partnership is a move in the right direction.

Not much is visible yet from AUKUS, though there are small shuffling steps forward in terms of Australia obtaining nuclear-powered submarines. Nonetheless, the way forward is not clear at all.

The UK may also take the opportunity to make port calls with or conduct maintenance of nuclear-powered submarines in Australia, and might it one day even base surface combatants in Asia, in somewhere like Japan or Singapore?

Only time will tell.


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