Britain not a player in Asia?
24 Apr 2014|

HMS Daring's Lynx helicopter arrives on the typhoon stricken Philippine island of Binuluanguan.  Sailors from HMS Daring have continued their efforts to deliver aid to the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Nowadays it’s easy to wonder why there’s a Great in Great Britain. But I’m not sure Harry White’s Canberra Times opinion piece, ‘Britain not a player in Asia’, is entirely on the money.

It’s true that Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his then Secretary of State for Defence Dennis Healey were driven in part by financial considerations when they decided to retreat from East of Suez (see Saki Dockrill on this). But in the same Cabinet Minutes that endorsed that decision (PDF), on 6 July 1967, the Foreign Secretary also reported that ‘…his statement to the Ministerial Council of the Western European Union (WEU)… about the United Kingdom’s applications for membership of the European Communities had been very well received’. So the shift was driven not only by financial circumstance, but was a deliberate policy decision to begin the process of alignment with Europe. Yes, Britain’s economy was at that point larger than China’s, and the opposite is now true. But does it follow that ‘Britain lacks the strategic weight to be America’s best friend in Asia’, or indeed that Britain even wants to be?

So the first and obvious question is ‘why is Britain back in Asia?’ is it ‘driven by the shift in American interests and by Britain’s role in supporting Washington’, or is there more to it than that? Geography aside, a reasonable starting point might be to ask just how ‘Asian’ Britain is when compared with an Asian country like, say, Australia. The 2011 UK Census found 4,373,339 Britons or 7% of the population identified themselves as Asian (including India 2.3%, Pakistan 1.9%, Bangladesh 0.7% China 0.7%). The equivalent Australian Census showed 4.3% of Australians claiming Chinese and 2% claiming Indian ethnicity. The size of the British Indian population alone, 1.45 million people, is greater than the combined Asian ethnic population of Australia. And the linkages between those ethnic populations and Asia aren’t just historical and cultural. The estimated value of financial remittances (PDF) both to and from Britain is substantial. Britain represents 7% of the flow of remittances to Bangladesh (GBP626m) and 14% to Pakistan (GBP1.22bn) and the value of remittances has been growing steadily at an average rate of 3% per annum since 1989.

Foreign Secretary William Hague noted in a speech in July 2010 that ‘economic power and…opportunity are shifting to the countries of the East and South; to the emerging powers…other parts of Asia and to increasingly significant economies such as Turkey and Indonesia. It is estimated that by 2050 emerging economies will be up to 50% larger than those of the current G7, including of course the United Kingdom’. Despite post-imperial decline, Britain is still the world’s sixth largest economy ranked by GDP. Yes, China’s economy is now about four times larger, but according to the WTO (PDF) Britain is the world’s fifth largest importer and 11th largest exporter of goods and the second largest exporter and fifth largest importer of commercial services. And where’s all this trade going? Putting it simply, Britain’s shift to Asia is being driven by the same factors that drove it in the late 16th and 17th centuries to compete with first Portugal and then the Netherlands and France for control of trade to Asia. To quote Bill Clinton’s 1992 election maxim, it’s ‘the economy, stupid’.

So what about Britain’s relationship with the USA? Is it fair to assert that ‘the more America focuses on Asia, the less Britain will be able to support Washington’s strategic interests’. What’s to say that Britain has any ambition to be America’s best friend in Asia; surely that’s a role that Australia has reserved for itself? The more Washington focuses on Asia, the more important it’ll be for Britain and other European nations to pick up the weight in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

But that doesn’t mean Britain has no strategic interest in Asian security; it does. William Hague acknowledged that ‘the resources Britain has available for the projection of its influence overseas are constrained…’, but that didn’t prevent London from deploying first HMS DARING (Lynx helicopter from which is pictured above) and then HMS ILLUSTRIOUS to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. Likewise, the deployment of HMS ECHO and HMS TIRELESS to the Southern Indian Ocean to support the search for MH 370 demonstrates an understanding of the strategic value of the deployment of credible military capability. How could it be that HMS ILLUSTRIOUS sailing from a deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean and Gulf could be on station in the Philippines two days before HMAS TOBRUK? What does that say about Britain’s ability ‘to deploy sufficient military force in Asia to make more than marginal impact’? Surely the important point is that a strategic adversary must consider the possibility not only that Britain might deploy a Queen Elizabeth Class carrier to a conflict half a world away, but to do so in the knowledge that it can, and when it’s in its interests, will.

Then there are the residual commitments of Empire. Britain is a signatory to the Five Powers Defence Arrangement and a member of the UN Command Military Armistice Commission in Korea. The British Indian Ocean Territories in Diego Garcia play a genuinely strategic role in the deployment of US maritime and air power projection in Asia. So Harry, you’re right that Britain isn’t going to come riding over the horizon with a military contribution that’ll shift the balance in a high-intensity war in Asia. But neither is Australia. Does that mean ‘Britain’s not a player in Asia’? I’m not so sure. One thing is certain—Australia mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that Britain is strategically irrelevant in Asia. And perhaps in the coming decades Australia might learn something about the strategic value to wider security of credible, capable and sustainable ‘symbolic contributions’.

Will Taylor is the former Defence Attaché to Australia, British High Commission and is now with QinetiQ Australia. Image courtesy of UK Minister of Defence.