On Strategy – East of East of Suez, The UK military presence in the Asia Pacific Region (Part Three)

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A guest post from Sir Humphrey.

This is the third part of the short series on UK Defence engagement in the Far East. So far the article has reviewed our commitments, our force levels and our potential engagement. Now in the short final part, we look briefly at the future, and try to get some mobile phone signal on the crystal ball…

What level of engagement is likely to occur in the near future?

So far this article has focused on the level of UK interest in the region, which it is clear is an area in which HM Government has very significant political and economic interests, but which is not a region that presents a direct military threat to the UK.  A good primer on the wider UK level of interest in the region can be seen in the transcript of a speech by the UK Foreign Secretary (William Hague), made in April 2012, which summarises the overall level of engagement by the UK in this region. A copy of the speech can be found HERE.

In terms of the level of future presence and engagement, this author would suggest that the current pattern of activity would seem to be about right – there is a regular flow of staff talks, and international discussions on all manner of issues between the MOD, wider Govt and other nations with whom the UK can work. These are in many ways the main forum for co-operation – by keeping the dialogue alive, even at a relatively infrequent or low level, channels of communication are maintained, and make it easier to ramp up relationships in due course when resources and international interests permit.

A good example of where defence relationships are likely to improve through lower-level talks, and potentially exchanges of information in future, is the recent UK/Japan defence co-operation memorandum, signed in April 2012 (link HERE).

Similarly, the current exercise programme, primarily focused on occasional deployments of RN vessels, backed up by the odd wider deployment of an RAF fighter element to support exercises with the FPDA, seems to be a roughly appropriate level of engagement.

While it is fun to consider the world of ‘what ifs’ the reality is that HM Govt has a limited amount of funds to spend, and Defence is even more limited. With no genuinely credible threat to our interests in the region, it is hard to see the justification for a massive upsizing of purely military resources out there. Instead, this is an area where ‘soft power’ should be used to maximum effect to ensure that UK interests are protected.

This author’s strictly personal predictions for the next few years (based on nothing more than a spot of thinking) would be though:

  1. The UK defence footprint in the region will remain relatively static, albeit with the occasional opening or closing of a Defence section.
  2. The UK will continue to see FPDA as the main focus of military engagement, and deployments to the region will be designed to coincide with major exercises.
  3. Task Group deployments and solo escort deployments will occur, but not necessarily on as frequent a basis as has previously occurred. Future deployments are likely to showcase specific high-end capabilities for training rather than perhaps a fully balanced task force.
  4. The UK will continue to engage in staff talks and international engagement with most countries in the region, but this will not necessarily translate into any form of meaningful and substantive military engagement in the region.
  5. Continued operations against piracy will see engagement with some nations that the UK would not normally operate with (for instance Korea and China), and valuable multi-national operational experience will be gained in this manner, even if there are limited exercises in the region itself.

The reality is that in an age where an overstretched defence budget has to cope with many demands, the ability of the forces to sustain a commitment to a region with negligible threats is limited. Although it is currently unlikely that there would be a permanent withdrawal of UK assets from the region, it will almost certainly remain an area where the UK will seek to influence and engage by means other than the military in nature.

Summary

The Far East is the region that most ‘internet fantasy fleet’ discussions get most excited about when talking on ideal future structures of the RN, or how they’d use the existing network of relationships and alliances to put UK troops in the area on a permanent basis.

The reality is that the UK doesn’t need this sort of permanent presence – the threat to justify it doesn’t exist, and the costs associated with permanently basing a large proportion of the armed forces in the region simply can’t be justified by the level of concerns associated with the area.

The current situation, where a primarily diplomatic network, merged with some small exercises and ship visits, works to remind nations of the UK interest, but then exercises, training or co-operation on operations occurs elsewhere, seems to work well and provides for an appropriate level of engagement.

It remains highly unlikely on current international trends that there would be a major shift in UK presence or posture within the region within the next 2-3 years. Therefore, this author would suggest that the current UK military presence in the Far East is entirely appropriate, and in line with the nature of the challenges posed by a vastly complex region.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short series of posts about a fascinating region. If the interest is there, then over the next few weeks and months, I will turn my attention to other parts of the world.

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