When the British defense minister revealed this week that new military bases were being considered in Asia, critics questioned whether London has the money – or strategic vision – to carry out such a plan.
But an examination of recent British defense initiatives shows that far from being an off-the-cuff play, a base in Asia would be a logical extension of moves made over the last few years.
Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson broached ideas for a post-Brexit British military in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph.
“This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War,” Williamson said.
“This 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.”
While Williamson said new British bases could be in “the Far East,” defense sources specifically mentioned Singapore and Brunei to the Telegraph.
From a British standpoint, those countries make sense. Both still host small British military contingents – a legacy from the first half of the 20th century, when Britain, then a world superpower, wielded control over both as a colony (Singapore) or a protectorate (Brunei).
And both sit on the South China Sea, where Beijing’s shadow looms large.
Playing by the rules
The Chinese government staunchly maintains that large areas of the South China Sea have been its territory since ancient times. Beijing’s “nine-dash line” extends more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from its southernmost province, taking in more or less the entirety of the waters.
Most other countries consider Beijing’s sovereignty claims unsubstantiated, a view backed by an international tribunal in 2016.
Williamson told the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore in June that Britain would demonstrate its solidarity with the “rules-based system” in Asian waters by sending its warships there – focusing, at the time, on the threats of North Korea.
“We have to make it clear that nations need to play by the rules and that there are consequences for it doing so,” Williamson said on June 3.
But a week later the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit took much of the sting out of North Korea tensions.
And when the Royal Navy’s amphibious assault ship HMS Albion showed up in the South China Sea two months later, it made headlines by sailing near the disputed but Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands in what Beijing called a “provocative action.”
A nod to Washington
Warship movements like that are a regular feature of US Navy policy in the South China Sea, and Washington has been encouraging its allies to join in and ease its burden.
So a new or expanded British base in Singapore – where the US also has military facilities – would surely be well received by Washington, Britain’s No. 1 military ally.
“It is a complementary step to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy and Washington will be pleased,” Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told the South China Morning Post.
As far as security arrangements go, much of the work may be done. The United Kingdom in 1971 signed on to the Five Power Defense Arrangements, a pact that includes Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.
The agreements, made when Britain was pulling back its forces from Asia in the 1970s, are the longest-standing defense pact in Southeast Asia, according to The Diplomat.
The five-nation group held three weeks of war games based out of Singapore in October, with operations in the South China Sea part of the plan.
Making the sale
While the strategic importance of a Singapore base is clear, it could also make economic sense for Britain.
Any salesman can tell you, it helps to show off the stuff you’re selling.
Britain was the world’s sixth-largest arms exporter from 2013 to 2017, according to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). It was also the world’s second-largest military exporter from 2008 to 2017, the Defense Ministry says.
Bases in Asia could be a “showroom” for some of that military hardware. And big arms deals would be a big boost for a post-Brexit British economy.
In 2017, Britain posted $11.3 billion in overseas military sales, according to the Defense Ministry. While this represented just 2.6% of the UK’s overall goods exported, the sales were of big-ticket items that provide well-paying manufacturing jobs.
One of every 200 British jobs was defense-related in 2015/16, the Defense Ministry says.
And Britain’s 10-year history of sales shows they were largely to countries outside the European Union, with large purchases by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, India, Brazil and the US among the nine key sales mentioned in the Defense Ministry report.
When Australia signed a $26 billion deal in June to buy nine British-designed – albeit Australian-built – anti-submarine warfare frigates, the Financial Times called it “a coup” for giant defense contractor BAE as Britain prepares to exit the European Union.
The Financial Times noted that the sale, which it called “the world’s biggest naval defense contract in a decade,” could help drive down unit costs for Britain’s fleet of the frigates and entice other foreign buyers.
Seeing those frigates at British bases in Asia helps the sales pitch even more. And who is among the competitors is the frigate export market? China.
The Chinese military carried a story on its English-language website this week saying the state-owned China State Shipbuilding Corp. had started building a guided-missile frigate for Pakistan, part of what it called “a major arms deal.”
The British expansion in Oman
Meanwhile, the SIPRI report says arms markets are growing in Asia, Oceania and the Middle East while shrinking in Europe, Africa and the Americas. The report also showed Indonesia was Britian’s third-largest arms client, following Saudi Arabia and Oman.
So don’t consider it any coincidence that, in October, Britain held its largest military exercises in nearly two decades in Oman.
Or that the Royal Navy is getting a permanent naval base at the Duqm port in the sultanate, a base which will have drydock facilities for its submarines and Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
“From Duqm, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be able to project influence across an important region. She will fulfill multiple roles from providing air power anywhere at any time, to supporting allies or delivering humanitarian aid,” the Defense Ministry said when announcing the base deal in 2017.
Substituting Singapore or Brunei for Duqm, how could the above statement look in 2020?
In a speech in Australia in 2017, then-British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the Royal Navy would be sending HMS Queen Elizabeth and its under-construction sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, into the South China Sea in 2020. So a British base nearby for the 65,000-ton warships, the most powerful Britain has ever put to sea, makes support efforts easier.
Taking sides or not?
If Britain follows through on a plan for an Asian base, expect strong opposition from Beijing.
When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his British counterpart, Jeremy Hunt, at the United Nations in September – after the British warship had sailed near the Paracels – Wang urged Britain “not to take sides” in the South China Sea, according to a report from China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
Hunt assured Wang that Britain would not do so, according to Xinhua.
But in an October interview with the Financial Times, the head of the Royal Navy, Adm. Sir Philip Jones, offered support for British allies in the Asia Pacific and said the UK would resist Chinese defiance of international maritime law
“If you are going to have a different interpretation of that [convention] to the majority of nations then that has to be resisted,” the British admiral is quoted as saying. “Otherwise you could see right around the world nations who will start to make their own interpretations.”