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The question of what role European nations and institutions should play in Asian Security has been given a twist by the Brexit decision and what it reveals about people’s differing assumptions on the UK relationship to its European neighbours. Britain’s pivot to Asia (which stared around 2011 before Brexit was even a twinkle in David Cameron’s eye) is starting to bear fruit just as the leave/remain battle approaches its climax in the lead up to the magic date of March 29th.
UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s speech at the IISS in Singapore (Britain’s role in a post-Brexit world) has set off the latest round of discussion about how much Brexit has or should have to do with European engagement in Asian security. It was just preceded by an interview given to the Telegraph by the UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson (30 December 2018) in which it seemed that the UK was determined to open new bases in the Caribbean and South East Asia.
The FT responded first with an article by its chief foreign affairs commentator, Gideon Rachman: The Military aims of ‘Global Britain’ should be realistic: opening a base in Asia is not the best use of scarce resources.
With less than three months to go until Brexit, the race is on to define that elusive term, “Global Britain”. Gavin Williamson, UK defence secretary, announced this week that Brexit is “our moment to be that true global player once more — and I think the armed forces play a really important role as part of that”. Fleshing out this ambition, Mr Williamson revealed in a newspaper interview that the UK intends to open two new military bases overseas — one in the Caribbean and one in south-east Asia. He placed particular emphasis on the idea that Britain is reversing its decision, made in the 1960s, to withdraw its forces “east of Suez”. “That is a policy that has been ripped up,” the defence secretary asserted. A great deal has certainly changed in the half century since that strategic retrenchment. But few of those changes suggest that it is a good idea for Britain once again to seek a military role in Asia.
Gideon Rachman concludes that:
The group of democratic nations that is best placed to balance a rising China is the “quad” of the US, Japan, India and Australia. The addition of British or French military resources might add some symbolic force to the effort. But it could also complicate matters, if China decided to follow its favourite playbook and target the weakest link in a coalition with an economic, diplomatic or even military response. The British government’s urge to present a confident face to the world as Brexit looms is entirely understandable. But military ambitions, without the resources to back them, risk making the UK look foolish rather than forceful.
Shortly after, the question of whether the UK has the capacity for playing a ‘realistic’ role in Asian security was answered by the Henry Jackson Society ‘Audit of Geopolitical Capability’ that used a detailed set of statistics to argue that Britain has the potential to be the number two world power. James Rogers, who compiled the HJS report (and is also director of the HJS Global Britain Programme) responded to Gideon Rachman’s opinion piece thus:
The FT op-ed got some pushback from Australian strategist Euan Graham
The base issue was only the start. When it came to the context behind – the conception of Global Britain’s role in the world, other prominent commentators were less supportive of the Foreign Secretary’s ambition:
Objections also arose in terms of priority (local security in Europe is more important):
The situation looks confused and well it might, since it is the result of several things happening at once:
- China is more assertive and most dramatically in the claims it is pursuing in the South China Sea. The PRC can now deploy military capabilities that significantly raise the cost for the US to maintain the credibility of its alliance commitments in the region.
- President Trump’s America First approach is making allies less sure of US support if push comes to shove.
- Russia has been pushing back against NATO and EU enlargement towards the East. Sanctions have hurt but not reversed aggression in Georgia and Ukraine nor have they deterred assassination and information operations that appear aimed at weakening the coherence of the West.
- Europe is feeling vulnerable from a combination of US pressure on trade and defence spending, Russian intimidation, the weakening of the EU as a result of Brexit, and its own lack of cohesion in coping with internal problems such as Eurozone policy, migration and populist challenges to mainstream politics.
- Asian states like Japan are looking beyond the US alliance to broaden security partnerships with countries like the UK, France and India.
- The UK is on the point of Brexit and naturally this leads to a re-assessment of its strategic position and options. The ensuing debate creates opportunities for aspiring political leaders to inspire the British public with their bright ideas.
When it comes to European security and the future role of the UK, the issue boils down to three questions -each with their own links to the Brexit issue:
- Is it necessary or wise for the UK to attempt a serious contribution to Asian security?
- Yes, because we are going to be Global Britain. “I find that folk want Britain more involved, not less” writes Tom Tugendhat, chair of the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. And it is necessary Britain is one of the few countries that can.
- No, because British security is European security, and it should act accordingly by focusing on threats from Russia, terrorism and migration drivers in Africa and invest in collective action by supporting EU institutions. As Gideon Rachman put it in the FT:
Britain, along with its democratic allies around the world, should certainly seek to play an active role in maintaining peace and security. But a realistic division of labour suggests that the UK should concentrate on security threats in Europe and its immediate neighbourhood, leaving its friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific to handle the problems in that region.
- Given the power shifts going on in Asia, does the UK have the capacity to make a meaningful contribution in Asia?
- Yes, because Britain remains a leading military and economic power with a special set of long range deployment capacities, and a global strategic world view.
- No, because Britain is in the grip of imperial delusions and nostalgia for its days as a colonial power. We have to accept that China is becoming so powerful it is up to the US and Asians to respond.
- If the UK decides it can and should make such a contribution, are the costs, liabilities and trade-offs worth it?
- Yes, they are but anyway it is a false choice. As a de facto global power (one of the very few with global military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic and cultural reach) and a de jure UN P5 member with obligations for looking beyond immediate defence interests, the UK has no choice but to take a global role if it is to remain itself. As the US pivots to Asia, support to its objectives East of Suez actually bind us closer to our NATO ally.
- No. The UK has to be ‘realistic‘, which means it has to face up to the fact that in a world of predatory powers like Russia, China and even a self-serving US, it can only hope for any kind of sovereignty if it pools its resources and national energies with its European partners, and merges its security agenda into a EU common foreign and security policy.
The answers to these questions are shaped to a remarkable degree by where the speaker stands on the causes, modalities, and consequences of Brexit and what that says about the UK’s long term relationship to Europe and its position in the world.
Both argue for a larger role, with the difference being that one sees Britain itself as capable of defining and executing that role either alone or with its global partners (USA, but also Australia, Canada and Japan, etc.), and the other sees Britain as only being able to play a significant role beyond its borders if it embeds itself in the EU.
But one problem remains. If Britain follows the ‘realistic’ course, concentrating on supporting security only in its European neighborhood, then who else from Europe is going to step in? A recent report from the Real Institute Elcano on Europe-Japan security partnership captures the current state of affairs. The UK-Japan quasi alliance comes through relatively strongly. Then would a rejection of Global Britain risk the end of meaningful European engagement in Asian security and the end of a global security role for Europeans?
Part two of a good read on the current and potential presence of the UK armed forces in the Asia Pacific.
What sort of involvement?
We do get suggestions what exactly the UK should deploy to the Asia-Pacific, but more often than not, they are just voices for grandstanding. Some are just list of ideals like this from the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) a whole list of what should be UK activities in the Asia-Pacific, now and post-Brexit. What really should be the UK’s plausible response to ensure stable security in the Asia-Pacific?
The UK military and political system actually is responding without such idealistic delusions of grandeur. First, the UK should continue or even try to slowly enlarge its permanent and temporary military presence in the region. British military deployments in Southeast Asia are already significant, despite what the analyst at HJS or other think tanks claim. The British Defence Singapore Support Unit (BDSSU), aka Naval Party 1022, is extremely well-valued by not just FPDA nations but other allied…
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While many British people were either complaining about the weather or worrying about Brexit, Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson and his delegation were abroad seven hours ahead of GMT plus 1 time. Namely, Williamson was in Malaysia, then Brunei and finally in Singapore for the annual Shangri-la Dialogue, or as known in social […]
In 2011, Allies decided to invite all partner nations to establish Missions to NATO. Since then more than two dozen partners have done so, in order to further deepen ties with the Alliance.
Japan is NATO’s longest-standing partner outside Europe, with deepening cooperation since the early 1990s. Over the years, the Alliance and Japan have worked together to stabilize Afghanistan, to counter piracy off the coast of Somalia, and to strengthen partners like Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Jordan. Today, Japan has liaison officers at NATO, including at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium, and Maritime Command in the United Kingdom. Japan also contributes a staff officer in support of the Alliance’s work on Women, Peace and Security.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Tokyo in October 2017, where he met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera. During the visit, both sides agreed to deepen cooperation in areas of common concern, including maritime security, cyber defence, nuclear non-proliferation, and gender mainstreaming in peace missions.
Is the “Strategic Partnership” the new type of Alliance we have been waiting for? According to Rajesh Basrur & Sumitha Narayanan Kutty in The Hindu, it may not make sense any longer to strive for the exalted status ‘allies’, because “Alliances are passé“:
We live in a world today driven by “strategic partnerships”. States find themselves in an interdependent system where the traditional power politics of yesteryear doesn’t quite fit. After all, every major relationship characterised by strategic tension such as U.S.-China, Japan-China, India-China is simultaneously one of economic gain. The U.S. and China are each other’s chief trading partners, while China ranks at the top for Japan and India. Besides, India might confront China at Doklam but it also wants Chinese investment.
This is an observation with relevance for the Anglo-Japan relationship as well. According to Busrur and Kutty, strategic partnerships and alliances differ on the…
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I am delighted to introduce Euro Asia Security Forum’s first guest post by Jie Sheng Li, researcher in international development.
The UK released the much-awaited 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS) and the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) on 23 November 2015. A range of commentators heaved a sigh of relief as the document and the Prime Minister indicated a huge investment in military equipment, especially Maritime Patrol Aircraft. The review was, however, not just centred on military and defence policy, but indicating the UK’s foreign policy approach. This article aims to summarise the UK’s approach towards the Asia-Pacific as statement in the review and what it might indicate for the global arena.
It is commonly noted that the UK is no longer a military hard power player in the Asia-Pacific region especially since the mid-1990s. The UK instead has focused on its economic efforts to retain its influence in this region. The 2015 NSS and SDSR gave such an indication in the early paragraph 2.13, which stated “We are actively promoting closer relationships across the Asia-Pacific region.” It continued by stating the UK will form deeper relationships with emerging market economies such as China and India. This has already happened in the past decade or decades with UK exports to China expanding by 84% between 2010 and 2014. This culminated with the state visit of President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi in 2015. These examples indicate how the UK would use its economic power to maintain relations with Asia-Pacific giants.
A second and related means noted in the document was to use diplomatic means to assert power in the Asia-Pacific. The document states that a possible national security threat could be competition over historical territorial claims (paragraph 3.24). The UK government thus has pledged to strengthen cooperation with the range of countries in the region. The document devoted a section to the Asia-Pacific, starting off saying that the UK would support Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. This is of course welcome given Japan’s prominence in the global political arena and its strength for example as a G8 (http://www.cfr.org/international-organizations-and-alliances/group-eight-g8-industrialized-nations/p10647 ) member. Such a support, however, may bring stiff opposition from China due to its historical differences with Japan (http://www.lowyinstitute.org/issues/china-japan-relations) and similarly, South Korea (http://thediplomat.com/tag/japan-south-korea-relations/). The rest of the section again states how the UK will strengthen relations by forging economic agreements, particularly with India and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The 2015 NSS and SDSR also stated that the UK would heavily engage with the multilateral system. This might in turn aid with the stability and development of Asia-Pacific countries. It also pledged to work with the International Financial Institutions and pledged to reform them where necessary. The UK, unlike the US, further joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), indicating its interest to work with a new financial order (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-signs-founding-articles-of-agreement-of-the-asian-infrastructure-investment-bank ). While such moves may be welcomed, the UK’s ultimate aim is to maintain the capitalist-centred, neoliberal, rule-based world order. The UK’s efforts thus may create adverse not positive impact on south Asian countries.
A further means of approaching or influencing Asia-Pacific means is through soft power tools. The document noted that the UK would use the BBC to spread UK values and ideas globally. It pledged to invest “£85 million each year by 2017/18” in BBC services to improve its reach (paragraph 5.17). It has further planned to fund a BBC radio service that reaches into North Korea (http://www.northkoreatech.org/2015/11/28/bbc-confirms-plans-to-launch-north-korea-radio-service/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter ). Another more prominent tool is the UK’s development aid, which has risen since 2010. The report pledged to meet the UN 0.7% of GDP target and also spend 50% of UK aid in conflict-affected countries. Aid will be a prominent tool in curbing global instability. This is again welcomed, though DFID has little projects in conflict-affected states such as Cambodia and Laos (see DFID’s development tracker http://devtracker.dfid.gov.uk/location/country/ ). It remains to been seen where this shift of aid will head towards.
The above show that the UK will be using its non-military tools to maintain its presence and influence the Asia-Pacific region. This is however not to say the UK will not exert military power over there. As the review noted, the UK is still a member of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) and still maintains personnel in the logistic depot in Singapore and the Integrated Air Defence System in Malaysia. The review also noted that the UK continues to have a Gurkha garrison in Brunei, although it hardly exercises with regional armed forces. The UK, despite its smaller armed forces, still values the Asia-Pacific and has even established a liaison officer with the US Pacific Fleet and Japanese forces (http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=84884 ). The UK, despite its economic conditions and the geographical distance, should still maintain defence engagement with Asia-Pacific countries as unknown events may threaten UK interests there.(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/11773169/Britain-will-double-personnel-in-Far-East-war-games-David-Cameron-says.html).
This article has shown the UK’s approach to the Asia-Pacific as noted in the 2015 NSS and SDSR. It has shown that the UK will engage and influence the region mainly through economic, political and development means. It has indicated the shortcomings to the various pledges. Despite the lack of military presence, the UK will still however maintain its personnel presence in the Asia-Pacific in the long term. The NSS and SDSR has presented a holistic blueprint for UK engagement with the Asia-Pacific. It remains to be seen it there will be the resources to carry it through and the political will.
This is a guest post by Jie Sheng Li, researcher in international development. Comments welcome!