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UK and Royal Navy Shift Focus Towards the Indo-Pacific

royal navy
F-35B fighter on the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth. The UK integrated defense review proposes to redirect funding to build up the Royal Navy (image courtesy Royal Navy)

Published Mar 22, 2021 10:44 PM by The Strategist

[By James Rogers]

“In the decade ahead, the UK will deepen our engagement in the Indo-Pacific, establishing a greater and more persistent presence than any other European country."

Those are the words of the British government’s long-awaited integrated review, which establishes the vision and strategy for “global Britain” in the 2020s.

The outcome is in some ways eye-popping; in others, it is very sensible and conventional. It marks the culmination of a process that Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised, on initiation, would become the deepest and broadest British foreign, security, development and defense review since the end of the Cold War. On that, it delivers.

The review is strategically innovative in many respects. It jettisons Britain’s support for the post–Cold War “rules-based international system” and commits to generating an “open international order.” It champions the pursuit of national sovereignty and power—predicated on a dynamic scientific and technological base—as the overriding UK strategic objective. It seeks to reposition the UK as a stronger custodian of collective security, and it backs that up by pledging to beef up Britain’s nuclear stockpile and enhance its military presence by forward-deploying more assets, including warships, not least to the Indo-Pacific.

Although Britain upheld an Indo-Pacific presence throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, the European continent continued to exert a greater gravitational pull. From holding back the German advance during the two world wars, Britain went on to help contain the Soviet Union. It then put out several fires in the western Balkans before leading the way with bolstering NATO’s deterrence measures on the eastern flank of the alliance, providing the most troops to the most locations in the Enhanced Forward Presence initiative.

Neither Brexit nor the integrated review will change Britain’s geography. The review is unequivocal in stating, “The precondition for Global Britain is the . . . security of the Euro-Atlantic region, where the bulk of the UK’s security focus will remain.” It describes Russia as the most “acute and direct threat” to British security. In order to help underwrite the defense of Europe, the review commits to boosting Britain’s nuclear weapons stockpile by some 40 percent.

But it is telling that the review contains only 15 references to the “Euro-Atlantic” compared with 32 to the “Indo-Pacific.” It is equally telling that the integrated review has a two-page spread on the Indo-Pacific to emphasize the UK’s need to adapt to new geopolitical and geoeconomic circumstances.

The review explains the strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific:

“By 2030, it’s likely that the world will have moved further towards multipolarity, with the geopolitical and economic centre of gravity moving eastward towards the Indo-Pacific . . . The significant impact of China’s military modernization and growing international assertiveness within the Indo-Pacific region and beyond will pose an increasing risk to UK interests.”

For these reasons, the review commits the UK to uphold a more persistent presence in the Indo-Pacific region in the years to come. It foresees deeper relationships with countries such as Japan, India, Australia and the other nations of the Five Power Defence Arrangements. And it plans for the broadening of Britain’s geopolitical footprint—based on a “strategic array” of military and logistics facilities—stretching from the Persian Gulf to Southeast Asia.

Indeed, the review states that Britain’s goal is to be “the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific—committed for the long term, with closer and deeper partnerships, bilaterally and multilaterally.” It declares that the UK will seek enhanced commercial relations with Australia, New Zealand and India, as well as with organizations such as ASEAN and the countries of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. And it emphasizes Britain’s strategic wherewithal and the Royal Navy’s global reach, represented by the planned deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific later this year.

Are these ambitions realistic? Time will tell. Although no longer a superpower, the UK is not without capability, and a strong government now leads it with a large majority in the House of Commons. In a speech back in 2016, Johnson also expressed his personal commitment to a broader British presence “east of Suez.” To support his aspirations for the country, he pushed for a $22 billion increase in defense spending last year.

Where the integrated review may fall short is on China; it treads too fine a line between engaging with and deterring the Chinese Communist Party. It nonetheless marks a significant change of tone: China is framed as a “systemic competitor.” In this sense, the review sets Britain up with a new strategic lexicon for thinking about international affairs—one more suited to 21st-century realities. And given the constantly increasing challenges in the Indo-Pacific, better intellectual tools are certainly needed.

James Rogers is co-founder and director of research at the Council on Geostrategy, a London think tank established to make Britain, as well as other free and open countries, more united, stronger and greener.

This article appears courtesy of ASPI and may be found in its original form here