The declaration by China of an ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ (ADIZ) over a disputed region of the East China Sea on 23rd November 2013, has only served to further underline the fact that, whilst much of the world’s attention remains focused on the never-ending traumas of the Middle East and North Africa, the centre of global interstate tension is inexorably moving towards South-East Asia. The decision by the United States to fly a pair of B-52 bombers through the portion of the zone that encompassed international airspace, quickly exposed the gap between the words of the Chinese government and the willingness of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force to take action. However, underlying territorial conflicts and often poorly-judged attempts by China to assert its power in the region, make this unlikely to be the last episode of its kind.
Meanwhile, twenty-four hours prior to China’s announcement of the ADIZ, the Royal Navy (RN) helicopter carrier, HMS Illustrious, was slipping her moorings in Singapore. After a week-long, 6,000 mile dash from operations off East Africa, the ship completed the loading of aid destined for the Philippines within forty-eight hours and was now on her way to the typhoon disaster zone.
Lost amongst much of the media commentary was that the docking facilities utilised by HMS Illustrious, in Singapore, were actually part of a British-owned logistics and support base. Had they been required to help distribute aid and provide security, ground troops based in Brunei could also have been deployed to the Philippines. The ship that HMS Illustrious was replacing in the post-typhoon rescue efforts, the destroyer HMS Daring, was in the midst of a series of exercises with local allied militaries when called upon to give assistance. Whilst the UK notionally withdrew (Hong Kong aside) from its commitments East of Suez – or at least east of the Arabian Sea – during the 1960s and 1970s, it still retains a small but important security footprint in the region.
The most visible component of the UK’s military presence in South-East Asia is the British garrison in Brunei. As well as a jungle warfare training school, the country plays host to a battalion of around 650 Gurkhas, which form the UK’s strategic reserve in the Far East. In recent years, these troops have been deployed to both Afghanistan and East Timor. However, as in Europe, it is a regional alliance that is at the heart of the UK’s security role.
The Five Powers Defence Arrangements (FPDA) are a series of bilateral agreements between Britain, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. Originally formed in 1971, and designed to provide for the defence of Malaysia and Singapore in the immediate aftermath of their independence, the organisation has, over time, evolved into a forum for interstate security consultation, collaboration and training. The full-time operational element of this organisation is the Integrated Area Defence System headquartered at Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth, designed to support the joint defence of Malaysia and Singapore, has with a number of British military personnel on its staff. Whilst initially focused upon fending off attack from Indonesia or the Soviet Union, recent years have seen a reorientation of the FPDA towards a broader range of contingencies. Post-11th September, these have largely comprised of training related to anti-terrorism and anti-piracy work. However, a combination of growing tensions in the nearby South China Sea means that the FPDA ‘zone’ is now in close proximity to a possible theatre of major conflict.
The ongoing transformation of the world order as part of what some have claimed will be a ‘Pacific Century’ raises the question of what role – if any – should be played by Britain. In the context of international security, the US has recently announced its intention to ‘pivot’ key components of its military forces to the Far East. Whilst the assets available to Britain similarly redeploy as the balance of global power shifts are of course far more meagre, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it could follow the US lead. The 1967 decision by the UK to abandon many of its commitments in the Far East stemmed from the necessity of focusing its defence efforts on Western Europe and the North Atlantic. In practice, this meant the scrapping of the RN’s conventional aircraft carriers and the anchoring of much of the Army and Royal Air Force in Germany. The end of the confrontation with the Eastern Block saw the containment of the USSR replaced by gruelling operations in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Central Asia. However, even during these latter engagements, the groundwork was being laid down to restore elements of the military’s long-range expeditionary capabilities, which had been sacrificed on the altar of the Cold War. New and larger aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines and supply ships are either on order or are being delivered, as are new long-range transport aircraft and carrier-capable fighters. Whilst suffering from savage financial cuts during the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, it is arguable that the British military will soon, in some ways, be in a better position to undertake global operations than at any other time in the last half-century.
So how should these restored capabilities be translated into actions that benefit the UK, its allies and the wider regional and global security environment? Increasing Britain’s level of defence engagement in South-East Asia would seem to be at least part of the answer. Physically, a cheap and easy way to increase the UK military’s visible profile would be to forward deploy one or more of the three recently ordered large offshore craft – vessels only being procured to provide work for a shipyard – to Brunei or possibly Singapore, mirroring a similar US move. This permanent presence could, post-2020, be complemented by an annual or biennial visit from a RN carrier force as part of the already established Response Force Task Group concept. Freed from the grind of Afghanistan, new training opportunities could also be found for the Army and RAF. Diplomatically, an expansion of the FPDA – both in terms of responsibilities and regional scope – presents an obvious path forward. Britain – a UN Security Council member, nuclear weapons state, leading weapons exporter and soft power giant – could provide a number of countries with a security partner that is significantly less likely to antagonise China than the US. Already, the Coalition Government is expanding Britain’s level of diplomatic engagement in the region. With such alliances could also come economic opportunities desperately needed in light of the difficulties still being faced by the UK’s traditional European partners.
With the end of conventional military operations in Northern Ireland and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it now seems possible that Britain may be able to adopt a security strategy designed to shape events – as opposed to a posture that is dictated by them – for the first time since the 1930s. Given both the shift in economic and political power towards South-East Asia, it would seem foolish not to take this window of opportunity to seek to expand Britain’s existing engagement in the region.