She’s off! On a grey morning last weekend, HMS Queen Elizabeth, the most powerful vessel ever built for the British navy and the largest aircraft carrier in the world outside the United States, left its home port of Portsmouth in the south coast of England on its maiden deployment, a long voyage which will culminate in the Indo-Pacific region, with India, Singapore, Japan and South Korea at the top of the list of nations to be visited.
Foreign naval deployments in Asian waters are becoming fashionable; almost every nation which possesses a half-decent navy sends a battleship of some sort to fly the flag and support freedom of navigation operations, or Fonops as naval commanders like to call them.
Indeed, Britain’s Royal Navy has already sent five warships to the Indo-Pacific region between 2018 and 2020, with one conducting a Fonop in the South China Sea in August 2018.
But the current deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth is different, partly because it is far larger than any other European foray into the region, but also because it signifies a fundamental realignment by the United Kingdom.
This is Britain’s biggest naval deployment since the war to regain control of the Falklands in 1982.
The Queen Elizabeth carries a total of 18 F-35 stealth fighter jets on board – the most sophisticated in Western arsenals – and is accompanied to Asia by six other British ships, a submarine and 14 naval helicopters. This British strike force will also be joined by US destroyer USS The Sullivans and Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen while carrying out visits.
And, perhaps just as significantly, it also carries both British and US marines. “We have never seen a ship with 18 F-35s out there that is going to traverse half the world like we’re going to do,” Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew D’Ambrogi, the commanding officer of the American contingent on the Queen Elizabeth, said over the weekend. “It’s a pretty bold statement. It’s about power projection.”
And that is precisely how the British present it as well. “When our carrier strike group sets sail,” said British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace recently, “it will be flying the flag for Global Britain – projecting our influence, signalling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow.”
The British are also keen to point out that their forthcoming deployment will bolster already deep defence partnerships in the region, and that the UK is committed to a more enduring regional defence and security presence.
Ships from the carrier strike group will participate in Exercise Bersama Lima to mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Powers Defence Agreement between Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and will then pass through the contested waters of the South China Sea, as well as the even more sensitive maritime regions around Taiwan and Japan.
The deployment is being touted by officials in London as a practical demonstration of Britain’s intention to tilt its military, trade and diplomatic effort more to the Indo-Pacific, as outlined in the British government’s recently published integrated review of defence, security and foreign policy.
“We plan to deliver this (presence) through offshore patrol vessels from 2021, a littoral response group from 2023 and a permanently assigned frigate by the end of the decade,” a statement to the British Parliament recently proclaimed. “These forces will intentionally operate asymmetrically, without a nominated base. They will use existing UK, allied and partner facilities around the region enabled by our existing global support agreements,” the statement continued.
The reference to “asymmetric” operations gives the game away: the British are fully aware of their limitations in both size and capacity, so they are signalling that, while they intend to play a role in Asia, their response to any threat will not be like-with-like, but asymmetrical, with resources and capabilities which will not necessarily match those of their potential opponents or allies.
Britain’s tilt to asia
Soon after the 2016 Brexit referendum which narrowly decided that Britain should leave the European Union, the UK’s Conservative-led government stated that its foreign policy objective would be to create a “Global Britain”, by diverting the country’s attention to Asia.
Most security analysts accept that this was the right decision, as the centre of gravity of everything from trade to finance and security concerns is moving away from the northern hemisphere to Asia. Indeed, the EU itself is now executing its own Asian “pivot”.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, British officials may have been guilty of two errors in heralding their Asia tilt.
The first was to present this as an alternative to UK engagement in Europe, a rather silly proposition given the British isles’ proximity to the European mainland and long-standing security and trade ties with Europe.
One can understand how the mistake was made: those advocating Britain’s departure from the EU were desperate to explain what their country should do next. Still, it was an error which handicapped British officials by making the tilt to Asia appear as just a publicity gimmick, a slogan in search of a policy.
The second error was to present the return of Britain to an area with which it had colonial ties as some sort of a romantic journey into the past.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who served as foreign secretary soon after the 2016 referendum to leave the EU, evoked British poet Rudyard Kipling by citing a line from Kipling’s poem “Mandalay”, a nostalgic eulogy written by an imaginary imperial soldier longing to return to Myanmar.
Perhaps Mr Johnson thought that this cloaked the new British policy with some historic substance. In fact, all he succeeded in doing is encouraging speculation that this geopolitical shift is just an attempt to recreate the supposed grandeur of Britain.
Still, these errors should not blind us to realities, which do support a British tilt to Asia, on purely practical grounds.
Europe still accounts for about 46 per cent of Britain’s overall trade, North America comes next with around 18 per cent, and just a few years ago, the Asia-Pacific region used to rank only third, with a share of around 7.5 per cent.
However, Asian countries have become the UK’s fastest-growing trade partners and just before the pandemic struck, trade with Asian nations was already predicted to draw level with Britain’s trade with North America and stand at about a fifth of all of Britain’s trade turnover.
Furthermore, of the UK’s top 25 trade partners, six of them are Asian countries. The UK is Singapore’s top destination for direct investment in Europe and its third and second largest trading partner for goods and services, respectively. And in turn, Singapore is Britain’s largest trade and investment partner in South-east Asia. In short, this is not just a “tilt” of aspirations, but one backed by solid statistics.
Furthermore, the idea that the British effort in Asia is driven by illusions of grandeur about a colonial past should not be taken too seriously. Leaving the rhetoric of the British prime minister aside, just about the easiest way of making oneself sound ridiculous in London today is to advocate a “return” to Asia, as though this used to be “natural” British stomping ground.
Quite apart from the fact that officials are only too aware of how counterproductive this sounds not only in places such as India but also in Australia and New Zealand, nobody in his right mind believes in recreating a Disneyland version of the empire.
Indeed, if there is one colonial “inheritance” which still weighs heavily on decision-makers in London, it is that of British responsibilities to Hong Kong. And here, far from pretending to act as colonial masters, the British have accepted an obligation few other colonial nations ever contemplated: giving most of the people of Hong Kong the right to come and live in the United Kingdom, if this is what they want. That was done not because someone was fond of quoting Rudyard Kipling but, rather, because politicians in London felt that their colonial predecessors behaved disgracefully.
In truth, Britain’s new eastward orientation represents an important shift in thinking about the country’s place in an interconnected world which will be increasingly characterised by the persistent rivalry between the US as the established superpower, and China as the superpower-in-waiting.
As seen from London, this is a contest which may not repeat the experience of the Cold War showdown between the US and the Soviet Union, but it is one in which the stakes could be just as high for everyone, and the outcome even less certain, largely because today’s top competitors are more evenly poised than those who engaged in the old Cold War. What is clear to decision-makers in London is the fact that whoever loses this new confrontation will lose control over their own future. And that is something that matters to the British.
Is it sustainable?
Can Britain sustain its Asian tilt? Up to a point, yes. The country is determined to remain one of the world’s top defence spenders and, for a variety of reasons, it is also keen to remain close to the US in military terms.
The UK already possesses a springboard for increasing its power projection capabilities in the region, especially in South-east Asia, by retaining a contingent of 1,000 personnel garrisoned in Brunei, which constitutes the only remaining permanent British military presence in the region.
Additionally, the UK retains control over the British Indian Overseas Territory, including Diego Garcia, which serves as a joint US-UK military facility located halfway between Tanzania and Indonesia. And two out of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence partners which are so crucial to strategic decision-making are in Asia. This provides the UK with the potential to play a role in any contingencies involving the waterways of South-east Asia.
Besides, nobody is talking about a large British military presence; the aim of ministers in London is to signal their readiness to cooperate with countries in the region and contribute to their security.
There have been rumours about the establishment of new British permanent bases in a variety of Asian locations, including Japan, but until now they remain just that: rumours. The British objective is not to act as a police force, but as a force-multiplier for others.
Still, the key problems for the British are how to expand their involvement in the region beyond that of military engagement, and how to conduct their affairs in a way which does not come across to countries in the region as another Western-inspired push to get them to choose sides in the growing US-China competition.
So, although the naval task force now sailing eastwards is impressive, the task for London is to present the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier as more than just an actor in gunboat diplomacy.