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

Type 23 Frigate HMS_Sutherland_(F81)_MoD

A guest post from Sir Humphrey. Firstly, may I say that I’m delighted at the level of interest shown in the first part of this short series. I shouldn’t be surprised though that so much of the commentary focused on CVF and the Falkland Islands. All one needed to do was mention the word ISO, and Think Defence ‘Buzzword Bingo’ would have called house!

Part Two of the series looks more broadly at the alliances we have and what the threat may be. As for the first part, this is purely a very personal viewpoint, and something which doesn’t in any way represent HM Government views or policy. Finally, I’m extremely busy at the moment and will try to respond to the comments, but even if I don’t respond directly, rest assured that I do read all of them as they come up. Once again, thanks for reading and participating.

Military Alliances: Given the reduced UK military commitment to the region, the main mechanism for justifying a UK physical presence now should be seen through the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA). This loose alliance was initially brought together in the aftermath of the 1971 UK withdrawal from the region, transferring responsibility for security – particularly for Malaysia and Singapore from a resurgent Indonesia onto the UK, and also Australia & New Zealand.

As an alliance, the FPDA is now over 40 years old and has managed to remain an active and valuable grouping of nations. It works well on two levels – from the UK perspective, it has served as a rationale for continued engagement in the region beyond the end of Hong Kong, and the maintenance of the Brunei Garrison. The other nations have benefited as it has kept the UK engaged physically in the region to provide high-end military capability – in previous years this was arguably a higher priority than it is now, particularly as nations such as Malaysia and Singapore have developed capable military forces capable of deterring aggression. However, there is arguably still value to be had in maintaining a relationship which ties in a permanent member of the UN Security Council to the region, and one which can still deploy sufficient military capability in the area if required, particularly including assets that may not be readily held by some of the other nations – such as helicopter carriers, tankers, Air to Air Refuelling, and other high-end military hardware.

FPDA is still a valuable arrangement – it provides a rationale for the UK to be in the region, it provides reassurance to nations that the UK is still interested in the region, and perhaps most crucially, it provides no legal obligation other than to consult – no nation is committed to military action against another as part of this treaty. A useful primer on the UK engagement with FPDA can be seen at the following website – http://ukinmalaysia.fco.gov.uk/en/about-us/working-with-malaysia/defence-new/five-power-defence-arrangements

From the UKs view, the cost of maintaining FPDA membership is normally relatively small – a smattering of staff officers deployed in the integrated air defence system HQ in Malaysia and the deployment of Staff or HQ elements to exercises when appropriate. However, the challenge for the UK is to continue to deploy sufficient assets to show that it takes the relationship seriously – which is not always easy in the resource-constrained, and operationally busy world of the MOD. Some could argue that the UK is going to have to strike a real balance over the next few years and show that it remains committed to the FPDA through more than just words; otherwise, the UK relevance to the agreement could become questionable.

One crucial point to note is that there is a clear value associated in many countries in the region with being able to operate with high end, high capability platforms such as the UK Type 45 class. One reason why the UK is able to enjoy strong relationships is its ability to deploy advanced military hardware, much of which often sets the stage for similar procurement by other nations. Many countries value the opportunity to train with the UK and get exposure to working with military capabilities that they would not otherwise encounter (e.g. carriers, SSNs, complex amphibious forces, ISTAR etc). There is a value associated with this that is not the same as with operating a low-end OPV or similar (as seen by some European nations which retain a permanent presence in the area). While it is always tempting to see suggestions of putting low-level capability into Singapore (for instance an OPV or something similar), the author personally feels it would arguably have less effect than an occasional deployment of a high-end capability such as Type 45 on an irregular basis.

What this means is that the role of the UK military in the region feels less to do with actual combat or military operations than it is to do with capacity building through access gained by deploying high capability platforms to the region. This in turn provides leverage to support UK influence in a manner which paradoxically may not be achieved were the UK to try and maintain a small low level maritime or other presence in the area

What is the Threat?

Having reviewed the presence and potential wider UK commitments to the region, it is now appropriate to begin to consider the threat, and wider policy drivers that justify this current force level, and also the UK goals in the area.

At its most simple, a fairly generic sweeping statement could be made to say that there is no current military or existential threat to the UK from any nation in the region. A bold statement, but in reality, an examination of the military powers in the area does not show anyone nation which poses a direct military threat to the UK at present.

Similarly, it is hard to see any nation in the region posing a direct military or existential threat to our partners and allies within the area in the scope of a conflict into which the UK could become embroiled. This is not to say that there are no territorial disputes in the area, for there indisputably are – for instance the situation of the Spratly Islands is an incredibly complicated territorial dispute, however, it is highly unlikely that the UK would find itself directly sucked into any of them as part of a wider conflict.  It is this author’s strictly personal opinion that the Asia Pacific region does not pose any direct military threat to the UK in any conventional sense.

In this era of maritime dependence, we as a nation are reliant on many of our resources, imports and goods being shipped in from around the world. As a nation there are huge economic interests in the Asia Pacific market – a cursory glance at the UKTI website for the area shows a hugely interdependent region where the UK has vast business and financial interests at stake – http://www.businessinasia.co.uk/asiapacific/market-information.

But do these large business interests necessarily equate to military interests though? The argument could be made that the UK has a need to protect its interests in the region, but equally the sort of threat that is posed to the UK’s interests would appear to be from more indirect challenges, such as piracy, economic instability, and other non-traditional threats, rather than the likelihood of another nation directly taking over UK interests.

The challenge therefore in the region is far more complex than that of just a straightforward preparation for military conflict with a hypothetical power. The region has a hugely complex and intertwined series of non-traditional security challenges, including piracy, terrorism, organised crime (particularly drugs), energy security, managing the challenge of climate change and so on. While the military does have a role to play in some areas of this, it could be argued that there is little that can easily be dealt with through a large scale conventional military presence. To that end, this author would suggest that there is no direct threat in the region that warrants or necessitates a significantly larger military presence than that which already exists.

The UK’s military interests in the region would therefore seem to stem more from a desire for wider stability to protect its investments, and capacity building – for instance working more closely on counter-terrorism issues, or providing support to tackling piracy, as well as enhanced training, as part of efforts to increase stability and to encourage other nations to play a wider role on the world stage. For instance, the FPDA serves as an excellent model of a regional security mechanism, where although the original threat has long since changed, the organisation provides an excellent framework for training and security cooperation.  One example of this is with Indonesia, where the UK is now actively re-engaging with the Indonesian military, and seeking to build closer links, and for whom participation in multi-national exercises could be of real value.

One area where the capacity building may occur is not actually in the region itself but is being seen in the operations off the coast of Somalia, where a large number of military vessels from the Far Eastern nations, including Korea and China, are engaged in counter-piracy operations. This area of work is a superb means of building low-level contacts between navies who may have rarely worked together before. This author would argue that while the UK may not have a significant military presence in the Far East, the contacts and joint work being conducted off the coast of Africa probably represent a more valuable training opportunity than multiple training deployments by the RN into the region

The final part of this series will focus on the future level of UK engagement in the region, and what form this could take.

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