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Charting Britain’s Moves in the South China Sea

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RUSI Commentary, 6 February, 2019

A British naval presence in the South China Sea strengthens global security and Britain’s global role. But it must be matched with a more systematic approach to the region, and to China’s defiance of legal norms.

Last summer, the HMS Albion, an amphibious assault ship colloquially described as one of the Royal Navy’s ‘Swiss Army knives’, undertook what is widely believed to have been a freedom of navigation manoeuvre near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. In doing so, the British government has shown that it is committed to upholding the rules-based order and asserting its market access rights in Southeast Asia. This was commendable for two different reasons: it projects a Britain that is willing to take the diplomatic and economic risk in the name of upholding maritime rights that benefit many smaller and medium-sized states in the region; and it shows that despite the Brexit process and contrary to the established narrative in the media, British foreign policy elites still view themselves as having something to contribute to the global system.

Yet however commendable HMS Albion’s transit in the South China Sea may be, it raises the question of what is next? How does ‘Global Britain’ – an avowed objective of the government – follow up on this naval transit in a meaningful and sustainable manner? Also, how does it avoid coming into conflict with China, which has begun to push back on US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in a way that raises concerns about a possible miscalculation or naval incident at sea? In short, how does the UK avoid a situation in which an incident causes the loss of life of even just a single British sailor, leading to broader political questions about Britain’s role in ‘meddling’ in the affairs of ‘far-off peoples’, about whom allegedly it knows little?

A recent Henry Jackson Society report sought to answer these questions with a number of policy recommendations, which might alleviate or soften the risks, while searching for ways to adequately resource and sustain operations far from British shores. The report proposed, for example, that the Royal Naval vessels might carry out two different types of freedom of navigation manoeuvres to defend British access to the seas: jurisdictional; and territorial. In the first instance, the Royal Navy might challenge the excessive jurisdictional powers that China has claimed for itself, such as Beijing’s demands for advance warning of ships transiting its contiguous waters. In this instance, Royal Navy vessels need only carry out an innocent passage through the waters but, notably, without requesting permission or giving advanced notification, thereby indirectly refuting jurisdictional powers China is seeking to obtain.

In the second instance, Royal Navy vessels might challenge China’s excessive territorial claims – particularly those straight baselines drawn between islands – by sailing through them in a manner not befitting innocent passage. This might involve carrying out a brief man-overboard drill or the operation of a helicopter.

There is a question, naturally, of whether the Royal Navy should take part in such operations inside the 12 nautical mile line of certain Chinese features as the US Navy has begun to do. While there are risks in doing so, there are also risks in not doing so, particularly those man-made features or low-tide elevations, where China’s excessive claims are ridiculous. However, should the Royal Navy take part in such jurisdictional or territorial challenges, it must do so in a manner that does not increase instability in the region or risk a military response.

One way of decreasing risk is by opening up the programme to collective action of a number of like-minded states, but in a way that does not increase the number of vessels in-area. There is, for example, the ‘ship-rider’ programme, originally proposed by former US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift. He found that many states – both in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe – were torn between their national interests in upholding their maritime rights and their national interests in receiving Chinese investment and trade. China’s leadership has of course realised this and has become increasingly willing to ‘punish’ states in highly symbolic ways that impact domestic foreign policy debates in offending states. The HMS Albion’s transit, for example, was greeted with a threat in the China Daily – a state-run newspaper – that future transits could ‘put a spanner in the works’ of a post-Brexit free trade agreement.

The ship-rider idea aims to soften potential Chinese punishment by using collective action. So, for example, the next Royal Naval vessel to carry out a freedom of navigation manoeuvre might have on-board uniformed officers from, say, NATO, India, certain EU states which are not members of the Alliance or, perhaps, even regional states like Vietnam or the Philippines. Such a manoeuvre compounds and entangles China’s punishment strategy and also raises the prospect – however dim – of Beijing beginning to realise that increasing multilateralism around the South China Sea issue will necessitate compromise.

Another way of multilateralising the freedom of navigation manoeuvers in a manner that does not increase the risk of miscalculation is the ‘multiple hulls’ programme, whereby multiple ships transit the South China Sea together, with only one carrying out a freedom of navigation manoeuver while the others wait just outside the sector. So for example, a number of European powers might sail through the South China Sea on their way to take part in port visits, with only one taking part in the manoeuvre.

Such a concept is already a reality, albeit a very incipient one, through the various groupings which are being formed in the region: the US-Japan-Australia trilateral and the US-Japan-India-Australia Quad are both fairly new quasi-alliance groupings that have sprung up in the wake of China’s expansion over the South China Sea. A Global Britain that really wished to sustain its presence and its interests in the region could join such groupings and take part in interoperability-building joint exercises, like Cope North Guam or Pacific Bond. The former is an annual air warfare exercise in which British Typhoons might show their capabilities, while the latter is an annual trilateral maritime warfare exercise, to which Britain could display its anti-submarine-warfare-heavy Type-23 frigate.

A Global Britain that really does stand for the rules-based international system and wishes to protect its market access in Southeast Asia and the wider Pacific will need to craft a number of overlapping strategies for dealing with a variety of challenges. It will have to contend with the logistics and geographical challenges that the vast distances present, although Britain is lucky that it has access to many regional strategic hubs, including those in Singapore, Diego Garcia and Brunei. While geography presents many challenges, it also imposes a useful constraint: Britain has to rely on regional partners and allies for its forward-basing and must should negotiate new basing agreements with friendly regional powers. France’s recent basing agreement with India might serve as a template.

Britain will also have to craft an all-of-government China policy to deal with the political and economic challenges of an assertive rising state. It must be remembered that China needs access to Britain’s financial markets, its technologies, and its diplomatic and media soft power networks, just as Britain courts Chinese investment. But only when China realises Britain’s resolve would the government in London begin to have a real – if still marginal – impact on Chinese policy.

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United Kingdom’s “Global Britain” Posture Facilitates Forward-leaning Indo-Pacific Policy

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CogitAsia-CSIS, 30 January, 2019

This year has been marked by the return of British naval power to the Indo-Pacific. For the first time since 2013, the United Kingdom (UK) deployed warships to the region, not only consecutively deploying three vessels to the area, but also increasing its cross-service defense engagement with regional partners. First, HMS Albion carried out a freedom of navigation maneuver near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, making the UK the only non-claimant state – other than the United States – to  openly challenge China’s excessive maritime claims; second, it took part in marine exercises with Japanese Self Defense Forces in Japan; and third, it expanded its trilateral relationship with Japan and the United States in an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercise off the coast of the Philippines in early 2019. However, the relative success of these operations has not stopped questions being asked both inside the UK and in the region around their long-term sustainability – particularly in the wake of Russia’s 2014 take-over of the Crimea, its hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine, and with the 2018 Skripal poisonings. All of this has produced an intense domestic debate over the future of Britain’s global posture, ranging from the government forward-leaning, Mahanian “Global Britain” position, to an “honest-broker” approach that attempts to sail precariously between the U.S.-China trade rift.

Global Britain

While it is true that Brexit has propelled a core part of the Conservative Party toward the notion of Global Britain, it should also be noted that a major shift took place in UK strategic thinking from 2014, which saw neo-authoritarian military revanchism in the Crimea and the South China Sea. China’s island-building in international waters had a profound impact on Britain, given its long history of safeguarding the principle of the freedom of the seas. The 2014 National Strategy for Maritime Security, for example, noted, “The UK has significant political and economic interests in the Asia Pacific…it is important that all nations in the region resolve any maritime disputes peacefully and within the rule of law, while protecting and promoting freedom of navigation and trade.” At the Shangri-la Dialogue in 2015, Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon raised Britain’s concern about “the scale and speed of current land reclamation activities and the risk that these actions may pose to maritime freedom of navigation and to the stability of the South China Sea.”

So what?

Aside from the Royal Navy deployments, the UK has infused new urgency into what were steadily-growing political and security bilaterals with major regional players. Previously, many of these relationships puttered along, but lacked an overarching strategic logic. Now it would appear that Britain’s foreign and military policy establishment has linked the Global Britain vision with the “free-and-open” Indo-Pacific strategies of the region. In its Joint Ministerial 2+2 with Australia in July 2018, the UK foreign secretary and defence secretary agreed to “protect and promote the rules-based system,” while increasing cooperation and coordination over the South China Sea, within the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), seeking “opportunities for deeper maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.” The agreement was marked by Australia’s decision to purchase a British design for its Hunter Class frigates. At $26 billion, the deal is a highly-promising indicator for sustained defense collaboration, given the strong political pull of maintaining Britain’s impressive defense industrial capability (British shipbuilding, aerospace, and defense industries bring in revenues of $40 billion, exceeding even Russia’s $31 billion).

That defense industrial pull has also helped fuel UK-Japan collaboration – on the Meteor missile, for example – with both states promoting what some have called, “the closest security ties since the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance.” In addition to defense collaboration, a regular cyber dialogue, and increasing intelligence-sharing, there has been a seismic shift in strategic dialogue. On January 10, 2019, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visited London, welcoming the UK’s increased presence in the Indo-Pacific, and reiterating his support for the UK’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The two sides pledged to collaborate further on infrastructure, 5G telecoms, cyber security, and maritime security.

In addition, London has also begun re-investing in its relations with South and Southeast Asia. UK officials made it a diplomatic priority last May to get Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India to attend the Commonwealth summit. His appearance and red-carpet treatment seemed to indicate a “reset” in ties. More recently, Britain has begun delinking its ASEAN policy from the European Union, welcoming Secretary General Dato Lim Jock Hoi to London this past month. As with Modi, the British policy class rolled out the red carpet, with Minister of State for Asia Mark Field, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, and a number of prime ministerial trade envoys meeting with the SG. As Field pointed out at during the gala dinner banquet, UK investment in ASEAN exceeds its investment in China and India combined, with ASEAN ranking as the third largest investor in the UK, with UK exports surging by 19 percent in 2017 alone.

Sustaining the momentum

China’s rise has seen it using that newfound power to implement shifts to the global order that favor its own strategic interests. It is no surprise that many regional states – allies and partners like Japan, Australia, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam – have emphasized the rules-based system in their pleas for a UK return to Asia. Given Russian revanchism closer to home, UK policymakers have framed the China’s behavior as a wider struggle. There are real questions about how sustainable all of this is, given the volatile nature of Britain’s domestic situation. However, Global Britain is in many ways an adroit repurposing of the UK’s strategic direction after 2014. These drivers have economic as well as strategic weight, something that should make them “Brexit-proof” in the long term.

In terms of how the UK engages with regional partners, the fact is there are a number of directions that British power could go in Asia. As a recent Henry Jackson Society report recommended, Britain could create a policy of collective freedom of navigation maneuvers by using a “ship-rider” program, with NATO or ASEAN flag officers aboard British hulls. It could also suggest a “plane-rider” program, putting British officers aboard U.S. and Japanese surveillance aircraft. Most of all, it could help internationalize and multilateralize the issue so that it is not obscured by U.S.-China strategic competition. The South China Sea, after all, accounts for transit of nearly one-third of total global maritime trade. And that is just as much a UK issue as it is an American one.


What China could expect from a Global Britain

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The National Interest, with Rob Clark, 17 August, 2018

As India celebrates seventy-two years of Independence from the British Empire this week, a grand historical milestone for the ancient nation, it is notable to see the Royal Navy sailing in India’s waters once more—however this time it comes as an ally to India to sail together in an increasingly troubled world.

Pulled from its forty-two-year involvement in the European project, the United Kingdom has begun a major re-think of its global posture. What does Global Britain mean? Where might it best orient itself in relation to a growing Indo-Pacific region, where trade, rising powers, and naval grand strategies reveal a region that is increasingly a central part of the global economy and political center?

Stretching from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Strait, the Indian Ocean is vital to international trade and commerce, with 50 percent of the world’s maritime oil trade passing through every day. It is a global market that the United Kingdom cannot afford to ignore. The global significance of this region has seen many vested naval powers transit this ocean to maintain their own interests.

But rather than coming as an imperial trading power—as it once did—the Royal Navy is coming to the region under a liberal democratic trading nation. The United Kingdom seeks to uphold an open and inclusive rules-based order, an order where all have rights—not simply great powers. And this commitment is more than just rhetoric.

Over the past year, London has committed to three separate missions across the Indo-Pacific region. HMS Albion, Sutherland and Argyll have all made their way through the Indo-Pacific region this year to carry out sanctions enforcement against North Korea and to conduct freedom of navigation operations to counter the growing Chinese naval activity. These missions have revealed the role the Royal Navy will play in a Global Britain strategy.

The sudden and rapid rise of Mahanian strategies among Asia’s powers has seen sea lane security re-emerge as a major geopolitical issue after three generations of U.S. naval preponderance. The most active driver of change in the Indian Ocean has been the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Far from its traditional sphere of influence of the first island and second island chains, the Chinese navy has rapidly established itself as a naval power in the Indian Ocean, and beyond into theMediterranean Sea . Beijing has done this by developing blue-water capabilities and a port strategy that secures its Beijing’s trade routes and energy supply line from the Middle East.

The emergence of China’s blue-water navy and greater power projection has complimented China’s long-term grand strategy of becoming the Asian hegemon, an ambition not lost on India’s ruling elite. Beijing has sought to ensure that “all roads lead to China,” with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Maritime Silk Road projects. Furthermore, China has encroached upon the territory and neighborhood of the region’s fastest-growing power—India—developing economic dependencies with nearly all of New Delhi’s neighbors.

As powers that are dependent on Indian Ocean trade routes, liberal democracies like Britain and India (and others) will have to learn to manage relations with Beijing. This will include balancing some of China’s more predatory behaviors such as the debt diplomacy.

The Royal Navy and Indian Navy will also have to learn to operate in close proximity to the PLAN, which has rapidly up-scaled its presence in the Indian Ocean, with recent estimates indicating a presence of at least fourteen PLA Navy ships throughout August 2017, including SSN class nuclear-powered submarines, with that number rising throughout 2018. There have already been positive examples of recent UK-Sino naval cooperation, including the arrival of two PLA Navy frigates in London last year for a ‘goodwill’ visit. It is precisely from these exchanges that the Royal Navy—respected for its long traditions—can impart best practices and norms to the still-young PLAN. Possible areas of planned cooperation might take place in the anti-piracy missions and with humanitarian responses to natural disasters.

As the Indo-Pacific once again takes center stage in global politics, we will see China and India each attempting to stamp their influence on the international order. This does not have to be confrontational, of course. As part of a wider Anglo-American security alliance which helped construct the current global order, the UK has a vested stake in seeing that these changes abide by the current norms underpinning the rules-based international system. This includes respect for national sovereignty, freedom of navigation, and free trade.

As Global Britain approaches the Indian Ocean, it will work closely with all navies, including the Indian Navy and the PLAN. No doubt, it will work more closely with some more than others. And, of course, it will have to ensure that its resources match its ambition. Should Beijing’s quasi-imperial approach toward the Indian Ocean continue, the UK and other European powers will begin to lend their support to the India-Japan-US-Australia Quad.

Regardless of geopolitical trends, the Royal Navy will seek to support joint naval drills and uphold the maritime principle of freedom-of-navigation. Bolstered by its own bases in Duqm and Singapore, the Royal Navy will seek to cooperate with all, including the United States, Australia, Singapore, and India. Global Britain as a philosophy will promote a collaborative approach toward Beijing while aligning carefully with like-minded friends and allies


Hindustan Times, Prasun Sonwalkar, May 27, 2018

Britain needs to focus on the Indo-Pacific region to avoid being caught between two worlds– not quite a European power nor a global power – post Brexit, a leading think-tank has said .

To do this, Britain will need to go to Asia by sea, even if it may remind many of its erstwhile empire built mostly through its naval power, a study titled Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific by the influential Henry Jackson Society says.

The analysis by John Hemmings has been released in the context of the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when, for the first time, the phrase “Indo-Pacific” was mentioned in an India-UK defence statement on future plans of the Royal Navy and Indian Navy.

The report says: “Despite the threats and challenges on the UK’s periphery like Russia and the Middle East, the fact is the future of global trade, global geopolitics, and global power are trending toward Asia and the UK must go there or risk being left behind.

“There are also trends in maritime trade and maritime security that mean that if Global Britain is going to go to Asia, it must go by sea. While such maritime arguments sound like a Britain harking back to a glorious past, in fact a Global Britain that renews its naval and maritime commercial capabilities will one that is preparing for a prosperous and engaged future.”

Mentioning the so-called “quad countries” of India, Australia, Japan and the United States, the report sees much potential for Britain to engage closely with the group in the context of China’s growing presence and plans in the area, including the Belt and Road Initiative.

Hemmings writes: “Britain and India are developing robust security ties across a broad range of ties; I suggest that the Indian Navy and the Royal Navy – who are brothers with a common history and common traditions – could do so much more together, both bilaterally, or in conjunction with India’s other partners: France, Japan, the US, and Australia.”

Besides the existing strengths in India-UK ties, the report says that Britain could work with Japan to financially support India’s desire to match China’s infrastructure projects. It also sees the potential to develop a UK-India-France trilateral maritime cooperation.

The report specifically recommends that Britain offer diplomatic support when key states – such as India, Singapore, or Japan – come under pressure within the region. It also calls for the utilisation, along with India, of the Commonwealth to bolster democracy with other states in the Indo-Pacific such as the Maldives, Fiji, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.

It also calls for the UK investing in Asian language programmes at British universities, particularly focussing on Hindi, Japanese and Chinese.


Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific

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Henry Jackson Society,  22 May, 2018

The weight of the global economy is going to Asia, it is going by sea – and the United Kingdom must act now if we are to build a truly Global Britain, according to a new report from The Henry Jackson Society.

Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific notes how the future of both the economic order and the rules-based international system will be decided in the Indo-Pacific. China’s growing naval power, its militarisation of sea lanes and its Belt and Road Initiative indicate not only a power determined to become wealthy, but one determined to set the rules of the coming age. However, many of China’s Asian neighbours seek to defend rules over power.

With Britain looking for new opportunities abroad in the wake of Brexit and the economic and demographic realities pointing east, the report argues that the UK must reinvigorate its partnerships with historic allies in the region, not least India and Japan – while also redeveloping new “special relationships” with Commonwealth countries such as Singapore.

The report highlights that:

  • The global middle class will grow 50% by 2030, with much of that growth taking place in the Indo-Pacific – spawning hundreds of new cities, industries and opportunities.
  • Over 90% of global trade is carried by sea and that maritime trade will only increase as regional powers struggle to bring consumer goods and energy to these new cities.
  • China seeks to exert control over these sea lanes in order to protect its own sea lanes, constrain India’s rise and set the rules for the coming era.
  • The Indo-Pacific is becoming a forum for competing visions of international relations – with many of Britain’s historic allies beginning to align in loose security groupings based on respect for maritime conventions and law.
  • The UK, dependent on the rules-based order and the sea lanes in the region, will ultimately have to adopt the “engage and balance” approach that most Asian powers have adopted towards China.

While endorsing the ‘cautious engagement’ approach of Prime Minister Theresa May to China, the report recommends that Britain should:

  • Seek a number of overlapping security relationships across the Indo-Pacific with large numbers of partners – including the ‘Quad’ of the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
  • Create “special partners” in ASEAN – not least Singapore, where Britain should explore the possibility for regular ‘2+2’ meetings between the two countries’ defence and foreign ministers.
  • Renew her security relationship with Australia – a useful “node of access” for the UK, as Australia is developing closer relations with key allies including the US, Japan and France.

Standing up for the rules-based international order in the face of the challenge from China should also involve:

  • An incremental increase in Britain’s defence spending, from the current 2% of GDP to 3%. This, with a particular focus on the future of naval and air power, would equip the UK with the requisite tools to have a truly ‘global’ influence.
  • Invest in soft power diplomacy to improve ties with Asian countries. These should involve a rise in funding for language programmes at British universities, particularly in Japanese, Chinese and Hindi; and providing help financing infrastructure development across the region, to counter the Belt and Road Initiative.

Read the full report here.


Global Britain and an emerging India in the backdrop of the Commonwealth Summit

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Observer Research Foundation, with Tanya Sen, 4 May, 2018

British civil servants responsible for the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in London breathed a sigh of relief seeing India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk down the aircraft stairs. Waiting alongside the High Commissioner to greet Modi was Boris Johnson and a retinue of senior officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There had been a lot riding on Modi’s attendance; after all, the leader of India represents more than 50 percent of the Commonwealth’s total population. It is as much an Indian endeavour as a British one, in that sense. Certainly, London’s diplomatic corps were out in style to greet leaders from 53 countries and to explore the future prospects of an institution — the Commonwealth — that might be a key plank in Britain’s global posture. Modi’s attendance was crucial to the event, and given the fact that no Indian leader had attended in 10 years, his acceptance was a significant message to London. Back in India, the media portrayed Modi’s attendance as an effort to step up its role across global forums. While the overall summit has been judged largely a success, the real significance is where an emerging India stands in relation to a Global Britain.


Modi’s attendance was crucial to the event, and given the fact that no Indian leader had attended in 10 years, his acceptance was a significant message to London.


Brexit is occurring at a not⎯auspicious time. The current international political order is in flux, perhaps the victim of its own success. As this ORF paper notes, it is a “period of unprecedented global structural changes and shifts in balance⎯of⎯power equations.” While some have portrayed this as “the rise of the rest,” this has evolved into a more traditional binary — with the rise of China and India falling into geostrategic, Mahanian patterns over the future of what is now being called the Indo⎯Pacific. The New Great Game is manifesting itself in both maritime and naval interconnectivity — and the implied control of sea lanes and ports — and in “development diplomacy.” Xi is redrawing the map of the Asian landmass with the Belt and Road Initiative, while securing China’s energy and trade routes through a ‘String of Pearls’. India, surrounded — and some might even say “contained” — by China’s grand projects, is wary of Beijing’s ambitions in its near⎯abroad. Are these projects built to extend Chinese power or diminish India’s? Of late, view from India has pointed toward the latter of these two options.

The New Great Game is manifesting itself in both maritime and naval interconnectivity — and the implied control of sea lanes and ports — and in “development diplomacy”.

In response, India has turned East with its Act East Policy under which it is improving relations with countries like Vietnam that Beijing might view to be inside its own 9⎯dashed sphere of influence. Paralleling Beijing’s own tactics in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and others, New Delhi is using trade and diplomacy as a basis for these relations, and interestingly promoting Buddhism as a unifying element. In direct response to China’s apparent encirclement, India has also been working to become more active in its own maritime domain by initiating agreements and projects with its neighbours and allies. One major project, which might push Indian life into the Asian continent is the new International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) linking India, Russia and Iran by a land route through 13 countries. This year will mark the official operation of this trade route, potentially leveraging Indian soft power in the region. While the recent Xi⎯Modi meeting was designed to press the “reset button” on bilateral relations, structuralists will argue that the two Asian powers are bound to continue to compete as they rise.

No longer the great imperial power it once was, Britain has a delicate dance to perform in this grand sweeping maelstrom of events. Global Britain remains an aspiration, a dream, and perhaps even — a slogan for UK trade missions. But there is room for optimism as well as cynicism, given the UK’s own government language on the “rules⎯based order.” In freeing itself from the European continent, Britain’s primary concern remains Russia. But there is a genuine search for a new global role among London’s foreign policy elites. One saw this in the miles of red carpet rolled out for its historical partners in the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere. The dynamics in the Indo⎯Pacific are far away, but they remain of deep strategic interest to London because of the maritime and trading aspects. After all, many of the region’s newest powers are merely mimicking what Britain perfected over 300 years — the synthesis of great power strength through a maritime trading empire.

In the modern era, the Sino⎯Indian competition compels Britain to a certain posture. While China remains an important trading partner, its links to India are much greater, across the political, legal and civil sectors, and across peoples. Lest we forget, 1.5 million Britons are of Indian ethnic origin; the largest minority in the UK. The presence of such a strong diasporic network enriches cultural exchange, forming a ‘living bridge’ between the two countries. While there is a large scope of improvement in the areas of trade, business and economy, there seems to be hints of optimism pointing to the outlooks. Modi’s April visit saw the two agree to a new Tech Partnership and a Trade Partnership, with the motive of driving a 15 percent jump in trade. Given India’s population, its rapidly advancing economy and its growing importance in the world order, Theresa May’s government is only one of a long line of recent Prime Ministers who view the bilateral is punching below its weight.

While it is too early to tell, the possibility that over the next few years the Commonwealth might become an Anglo⎯Indian project, is now in the air. After all, if the UK gives a greater role for India, it becomes a tool for Delhi to exert a global leadership that it has yet to satisfy through BRICS and the SCO. For its part, by aligning with Delhi, London takes a major step into the Indo⎯Pacific as a strong partner to the rising power that respects democracy and human rights. It also enables the UK’s elites to refashion rhetoric around the rules⎯based order, into a framework for Global Britain. On the other, India would have to itself ‘a prospective forum for its power projection’ in which China is not a member. The India⎯Commonwealth Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) Trade Summit hosted in 2017 is an example of the scope of integration the Commonwealth could achieve in the future should member countries be given a greater say. One cannot disregard the political scope of an institution with 53 member countries spanning five continents in today’s increasingly interlinked and complex world order. Britain and India are both in need of ways to further their foreign policy agendas and strengthening bilateral ties. As an international platform, the Commonwealth could play a pivotal role in the pursuit of their short⎯term and long⎯term strategic goals. To quote Modi, “Once we have decided to do something, we can go miles ahead.”


Britain can be a power in AsiaMH170004056

The Interpreter. 22 January, 2018 (with James Rogers)

Recently the Lowy Institute’s Aaron Connelly argued that there is not much Britain can do in Asia because British power is diminishing. This is unsurprising.

One of the biggest challenges in international relations is ascertaining a given state’s place in the international system. People often get it wrong, they sometimes confuse power with capability and, like author Paul Kennedy, miss important trends, such as the information revolution.

While it’s true the UK will incur costs from leaving the EU, the numbers reveal a more positive story than Connelly suggests. Furthermore, the UK’s strong set of institutional, governance, and economic capabilities – comprising actual as well as latent power – will mean greater UK engagement in the world. Indeed, the UK already sees itself moving toward the constellation of states, including Australia, concerned with maintaining the rules-based order from would-be revisionists.

As a 2017 Henry Jackson Society report based on 59 indicators showed, the UK’s total geopolitical capability remains very high despite its decision to leave the EU. Indeed, many of the dire predictions made prior to the referendum have simply not occurred. Nor are there indicators that they might yet happen.

The UK economy remains the fifth or sixth largest in the world (depending on the indicator), and is among the wealthiest and most technologically advanced. Growth for 2016, recently revised up for a second time, was 1.9%, making Britain the joint-fastest growing economy in the G7. Preliminary statistics show that UK output last year grew by an impressive 1.7%.

As for the predicted exodus of financial institutions from London, this has been far less severe than anticipated, mainly because few understand how difficult transitioning to a European capital would be. London is one of the world’s two largest financial centres, and it is highly unlikely that any single European city could replace the financial ecosystem of commercial law firms, international banks, brokerage firms, and financial services that have developed organically in the City of London and Canary Wharf in recent decades. In terms of financial centrality, London has 27% more capacity than Paris, and nearly 99% more capacity than Frankfurt.

The UK retains a number of structural features that bolster its robust economy. Britain’s infrastructure is up to date and successfully connects a densely populated and urbanised island.

While British research and development spending remains lamentably low, the government has pledged to increase it to internationally competitive levels. In any case, this has not hindered Britain’s universities from becoming among the world’s strongest, ranking third in terms of scientific and medical Nobel Prizes awarded to alumni since 2007.

In terms of ‘connectivity’, the UK ranks fifth in the world (and first in Europe) and has several hubs for tech start-ups, including Cambridge and Shoreditch in London.

In military terms, Britain has just launched a 70,000-tonne aircraft carrier which significantly outweighs the combined tonnage of all surface combatants in the German Navy, while the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (Britain’s naval replenishment service) has more than five times the displacement of all the French Navy’s comparable large auxiliary vessels.

The British Isles may seem a long way away from Australia and South East Asia, but these critical capabilities, combined with Britain’s ‘strategic array’ of naval and air stations linking Portsmouth and Plymouth to the British naval facility in Singapore via Gibraltar and bases in Cyprus, Bahrain, Oman and Diego Garcia, affords Britain the ability to overcome the tyranny of distance.

In 2011, the Royal Navy responded to Typhoon Haiyan with greater speed than most regional powers; today, the UK has a global naval reach exceeded only by the US, and perhaps in the near future by China. And with the commissioning of the Royal Navy’s second supercarrier, HMS Prince of Wales, in a couple of years, as well as a flotilla of larger, more capable replenishment vessels, Britain’s ability to project itself into the Indo-Pacific will almost certainly increase.

The recent trip of British Eurofighter Typhoons to the region shows that the Royal Air Force will not lag behind the Royal Navy in this respect.

Britain also holds latent power, much of it in its military-industrial base, which is one of the world’s largest. British shipbuilding, aerospace, and defence industries bring in revenues of US$40 billion, which is nearly double that of France, and exceeds Russia’s US$31 billion.

What is more, this base is supported by one of the world’s largest military expenditures, at approximately US$56 billion. However, this amounts to only 2.14% of British national output, one of the lowest levels in British history. If this was increased to a still-modest 3% of GDP, considerably less than during the 1980s or early 1990s, the UK would be spending more than US$72 billion per year – more than any power active in the Indo-Pacific, bar China and the US.

To give Connelly credit, he does note Britain’s role in the UN Security Council, as well as its pivotal leadership role in NATO. But he fails to mention that the UK is the only European power other than France to have security arrangements in place in the Indo-Pacific, in the form of the Five Power Defence Arrangements. True, this network is latent rather than harnessed power, but it could be readily enhanced as a locus of regional security cooperation, perhaps involving Japan, as suggested by Shinzo Abe a few years ago.

Connelly also ignores the UK’s powerful position within the Five Eyes network, which is odd given Australia’s own reliance on these jointly pooled intelligence capabilities. In terms of cyber capabilities, of the five allied countries, only Britain and the US have developed significant offensive as well as defensive capabilities sufficient to dissuade and deter attacks.

Furthermore, Connelly overlooks the growing strategic focus of the UK Government on parts of the Indo-Pacific in recent years, even as it has beaten off an attempt to break up the UK and has implemented the British people’s decision to leave the EU. Since 2013 Britain has pursued deeper security and defence relations through a treaty with Australia, and a fast-growing 2+2 defence and security dialogue with Japan, to such an extent that in December, London and Tokyo declared they were each other’s ‘most important partner’ in Asia and Europe, respectively.

Britain has also fostered slightly deeper ties to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and India in key areas, such as counterterrorism and cybersecurity. At the western edge of the Indo-Pacific, the UK has boosted its presence in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea with enhanced or new naval facilities in Bahrain and Oman, backed up by a tour of the region by the British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, and Secretary of State for Defence in December 2016.

The UK’s decline is no more pronounced than that of any Western nation, including the US. Although Connelly is right to point out that efforts to deal with the consequences of withdrawal will take up much bandwidth in the short term, the UK is almost certain to remain one of the half-dozen most capable nations in the world, and one that remains invested in the rules-based and maritime order.

It may well be that Connelly is concerned with political will; but as he should know, this is as changeable as a referendum or presidential election.

The fact is, Britain has the ability if it chooses.

Although it is unlikely Britain will place the Indo-Pacific at the centre of its national strategy, it will look to buttress some of the groups now being formed in the region, such as the US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral, not least to help shore up the rules-based order. It is well within its capabilities to seek a constabulary role over its trade routes, even beyond Singapore.

As the UK’s focus moves away from the European continent and back to its traditional maritime space, its hard power will follow. In the face of rising maritime trade and maritime security challenges, the UK is destined to look at trade, economy and security in a far more unified way than in recent years. This isn’t Britain pining for an imagined imperial past; this is a Britain prepared for a rules-based maritime future.

So, while we don’t wish to sound triumphalist, we do wish to assure Aaron Connelly that Britain has the hard power capabilities to drive ever-closer engagement with Australia and other regional powers, and we look forward to working together on the high seas.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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