By James Maclaren, Feb 12 2019 12:26PM
As the UK exits from the European Union it seeks to renew friendships and strengthen ties with countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. But there is a security price to pay.
The recent arrival of a Royal Navy warship, HMS Montrose into Auckland Harbour heralded a new defence initiative and return to the Asia-Pacific region by the UK. The Type 23 frigate is to be forward deployed to the region for three years and will undertake a number of duties including participation in the international maritime operation to enforce sanctions against North Korea. HMS Montrose is the latest in a line of British warships to operate in the region. Such deployments are not always viewed favourably. The transit of HMS Albion through the South China Sea in September 2018 produced controversy, and was described by China as provocative. It resulted in a protest to the UK being lodged by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. will continue in response to China’s The UK has confirmed that it will continue to participate in the international Freedom of Navigation Operations led by the United States, which are undertaken to resist China’s attempts to consolidate its territorial claims to a large swathe of the South China Sea.
However, the presence of the warship served another purpose.
As the British Government prepares to finalise its departure from the European Union there is renewed interest in developing far stronger ties to the region. Using the UK’s military for what it’s Ministry of Defence calls ‘Defence Diplomacy’ is part of several initiatives to win friends and influence people in an area of the world the UK has neglected. There is good reason for this.
The UK needs new trade partners.
Southeast Asia looks set to continue its steady economic rise albeit at a slightly more modest rate. According to latest OECD analysis, overall growth across the region will continue at a respectable 5.2% until 2022. As the UK seeks to balance its loss of access to the EU single market, it eyes the continued potential of the region with great interest. It sees trade with the Emerging Asian countries as strong markets for its technology, services and education sectors and views the recently renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) as an ambitious route to a deeper engagement once its departure from the EU is complete.
As the second largest exporter of military equipment in the world it also sees big opportunity for its defence industries. These ambitions were given a boost recently by Australia’s decision to select the UK designed Type 26 Global Combat Ship for its Future Frigate program. Not only is this a commercially significant decision but it will take the military interoperability between the countries to a new level as they eye the continued expansion of China’s maritime capability.
There is a historical angle too.
The UK has always been uneasy about its active withdrawal from engagement in the region. Past ties to countries such as Singapore and Malaysia and powerful wider links to Australia and New Zealand rapidly diminished following Britain’s inward turn to Europe, a process which many viewed with disquiet, like cutting off links with members of your family. There was a strong sense of sadness following the handover of Hong Kong that the country was turning its back on family, friends and allies too hastily. This was not just the nostalgia of a declining power, many view the shrinking of trade relations in the region to have been a strategic mistake and missed opportunity that the modest if safer embrace of the EU would not compensate for. Many believe taking a wider global view is critical to post-Brexit success and provides an opportunity to restore and rejuvenate historical links.
The push back toward the Asia-Pacific countries is being gently welcomed with warm words of support from governments from Singapore through to Australia. Non-Commonwealth countries too have showed they welcome an increased UK presence in the region’s trade, diplomatic and defence arrangements. Vietnam have warmed up their bilateral relationships with increased defence dialogue and trade discussions, while UK troops train in Japan with the Japanese Defence Forces.
But there are security obligations as well.
As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the ‘Five’ Eyes intelligence alliance and many other international organisations the UK sees itself as a substantial figure in the maintenance of a rule-based world order. There is a view in Government that given the globalised nature of common threats and the challenges to stability that exist, the UK should offer more than warm words and diplomatic pressure to support the US beyond the traditional NATO area of interest and use its significant security capabilities including when necessary hard military resources. A programme of training and support to Commonwealth countries like Malaysia and Singapore is underway, but there will be more, with military collaboration dialogues planned at various levels of pace and depth with the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia; all taking place against the backdrop of trade talks and increased diplomatic engagement. Both Australia and New Zealand isolated outposts of western security cooperation welcome increased UK security commitments which build on already strong bilateral arrangements with muscle and effort.
Enter HMS Montrose.
While on one level the forward deployment of a single warship represents nothing more than diplomatic signalling, it is a sign that UK military presence will grow in the region. Carefully coordinated with close allies like the US and Australia the deployment of Royal Navy ships will become a regular feature of UK military operations. Already plans are being scoped for a future deployment to the region by the new giant aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. A more ambitious plan for a permanent Royal Navy base in the region is under consideration by the UK Government and was trailed around Whitehall by the UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson MP.
What this means
Britain has a history of synergy between trade expansion and military operations (as well as the Royal Family) and sees their roles as mutually inclusive. After all, the East India Company — an early pretender to modern-day global corporations — was owned and funded the Indian Army of Empire days. Without the support of military power economic success would not have been possible. While no one suggests a similar approach is planned, in recent decades the UK has relied entirely upon its soft power capability to advance its interests in the region. Post-Brexit this is likely to change.
With developing markets and high-growth the countries of Southeast Asia and the Pacific represent an area of strategic interest which the UK will approach with new vigour. However, the price for deepening trade relationships and dependencies is likely to be the need to shoulder more responsibility for regional security. The early signs are that the British recognise such engagement is worth the prize.