Britain tilts towards the Indo-Pacific
15 Dec 2020|

Last month, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a £16.5 billion (A$29 billion) increase in funding for the British Armed Forces, on top of an increase of 0.5% above inflation per year announced in the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto. Combined, this means that the UK is due to spend £24.1 billion (A$42.4 billion) more than it was otherwise planning to before last year’s budget, representing the largest increase for defence since the Cold War. It also means that British defence spending will amount to £190 billion (A$334.5 billion) over the next four years, potentially taking the country from the world’s sixth largest to fourth largest military spender.

Undoubtedly, some of this money will be used to plug a £6 billion (A$10.6 billion) ‘black hole’ in the Ministry of Defence’s finances, a consequence of previous governments’ erroneous belief that ‘efficiency savings’ would provide sufficient resources to fulfil their strategic ambitions.

But most of the money will be used to upgrade the armed forces. Johnson announced some of the big-ticket items his government is planning to buy. Much of the funding will be used to push forward with the replacement of the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines, critical in deterring hostile states like Russia—a mission that has new-found importance given the recent deployments of British conventional forces in Eastern Europe. Some of the money will be used to fund a new national cyber force, a new space command, and research into new systems and technologies, such as the future combat air system and directed-energy weapons, to improve the lethality and durability of the armed forces.

Investment in these areas chimes with the nature of the geopolitical challenge outlined in the UK’s Integrated operating concept 2025, published in late September. The document sets out a new model for UK forces to respond to a strategic context that is ‘increasingly complex, dynamic and competitive’ where ‘adversaries and rivals engage in a continuous struggle involving all of the instruments of statecraft, ranging from what we call peace to nuclear war’.

To meet this challenge, the concept asserts that the UK needs to move out of the shadows and into the limelight as a more active and determined global power. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s decision last month to cut back on Britain’s bloated and unfocused aid budget and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s move to channel the remainder into a more strategic international development program are further evidence of the change in thinking.

Together, the spending uplift and integrated operating concept provide the clearest evidence yet as to the geostrategic posture that the government’s ‘integrated review’ of foreign, defence and development policy, set to be published early in 2021, is going to recommend. This became clearer with Johnson’s assertion that some of the new defence funding would be used to uphold the Royal Navy’s position as ‘the foremost naval power in Europe’, mandating the construction of a new generation of frigate (the Type 32), in addition to the Type 26 and Type 31 classes already on order.

In short, the UK appears set to tilt further ‘east of Suez’—British strategic parlance for the Indo-Pacific—a move that has been underway for some time. Since the early 2010s, the UK has deepened its strategic relations with the Gulf states and the countries of Southeast Asia as well as Japan and Australia, while also moving to bolster its ‘strategic array’ of military facilities throughout the region, including in Bahrain and Oman.

The British naval presence in the Indo-Pacific has also become more persistent, most notably in August 2018 when the amphibious assault ship HMS Albion steamed through the Paracel archipelago en route from Tokyo to Hanoi. With this manoeuvre the Royal Navy became the only navy, other than the US Navy, to negate China’s illegitimate imposition of ‘straight baselines’ around the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

Britain’s Indo-Pacific tilt appears to have Johnson’s direct approval. As foreign secretary in 2016, he told an audience in Bahrain that the UK’s ‘policy of disengagement’ in the region during the 1960s and 1970s ‘was a mistake’ and that ‘in so far as we are now capable, and we are capable of a lot, we want to reverse that policy’. Indeed, last month he confirmed to the House of Commons, after much speculation, that the first of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers, the 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth—escorted by a full strike group—would visit the Indian and Pacific oceans during its maiden operational tour next year.

Of course, a good dose of realism is still needed. For obvious geographic reasons, Britain is never going to see the two parts of the Indo-Pacific as equally important, just as it is unlikely to come to see the wider region as its primary operating theatre in the way that Australia and Japan do—or even the US does. As an Atlantic power and a nuclear custodian of NATO, the UK is compelled to take a leading role in upholding the defence of Europe. So while new British military facilities might be opened in Southeast Asia and the presence of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines may become more permanent in the region, competing interests will compel the UK to balance carefully between its Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific vocations.

Empowered by strengthened armed forces and a new geostrategic posture, ‘Global Britain’ is finally being fleshed out. Make no mistake, this is not about imperial nostalgia. It is about the future. Insofar as China’s interests, manifested through its energy needs and the Belt and Road Initiative, pull it westwards to the Middle East, Africa and even the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, the UK’s two geostrategic priorities—the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific—are almost certain to intersect.

And as Britain looks more towards the Indo-Pacific, its regional allies and partners will be compelled to realise that they are increasingly connected to the Euro-Atlantic. Indeed, if the Indo-Pacific is to be kept ‘free and open’, semi-external powers like the UK will need to be involved. It is therefore in the interests of Britain’s regional allies and partners to help draw it towards the Indo-Pacific. As regional strategic competition intensifies and the geopolitical environment sours, they will need all the help they can get.