In an August 7 speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson claimed the Royal Navy’s return to the Pacific would be permanent. He also said China’s rise was an international problem, and that its militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea, where it has overlapping territorial claims with a number of Southeast Asian neighbors, went against international norms.
British naval deployment in East Asia is officially aimed at protecting global seaborne trade. Admiral Sir Philip Jones, the Royal Navy’s first sea lord and chief of naval staff, said during an event at the London-based Royal United Services Institute in May that Beijing “may not pose a direct threat” to Britain, but it could be able to contest the Royal Navy’s ability to conduct freedom of navigation operations, a key component of the rules-based international order.
Williamson also emphasized that Britain was still “a tier-one” military power, “ready and willing to fight in mainland Europe, in the Middle or in the Far East.” But the reality is that the Royal Navy cannot operate in East Asia without the support of the vast US defense framework, as well as French military forces and logistical facilities in the Indo-Pacific area.
Current and future deployments
Three British warships have been deployed in the Indian Ocean and Pacific waters this year. The anti-submarine frigate HMS Sutherland returned to Britain on August 10 after a seven-month service that included passages through the disputed South China Sea, port visits to Asia-Pacific countries and joint exercises with the United States, Australia, Japan and New Zealand.
The amphibious assault ship HMS Albion, the fleet flagship of the Royal Navy recently stationed in Northeast Asia to enforce United Nations sanctions against North Korea, is set to begin its journey back to Britain. In the meantime, HMS Argyll, another anti-submarine frigate, is heading for East Asia, where it will take part in maritime drills with Japan.
The British government intends to deploy one of its two future aircraft carriers (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) in the Indo-Pacific in the 2020s. The capabilities of the 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will be docking in New York next month, will be reinforced by a US Marine Corps squadron of F35B fighters in 2021. The Royal Navy is placing great emphasis on combined air-sea capacities and full integration of the F-35 and future air combat platforms with carrier strike forces.
Part of a globally deployed maritime task group
Access to seas and oceans is a staple of Britain’s geopolitics. London wants global commons to be free and secure, and is concerned that China’s rapid expansion of its naval forces can limit its freedom of action in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Speaking at another conference in June, Admiral Jones said Britain would soon be able to team up with the navies of the United State and France “delivering continuous carrier strike capability as part of a globally deployed maritime task group.”
The Franco-British combined expeditionary force should become effective by 2020. HMS Albion held joint operations with the French-led Jeanne d’Arc naval task force in the Java Sea in April. British troops, with two Wildcat helicopters, joined the French mission embarked on amphibious assault ship FS Dixmude.
Britain also has a new trilateral arrangement with the French Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force. In addition, last month, Williamson and his Australian counterpart, Marise Payne, floated the possibility of HMS Queen Elizabeth joining the Royal Australian Navy in the Pacific area to assert international navigation rights, and possibly support Canberra’s anti-submarine operations in its waters – which have the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as their obvious target.
According to Jones, in five years “it is reasonable to expect that wherever [British naval forces] are operating, the Chinese will be there, too.” He added that in 10 years the Chinese submarine fleet was likely to outnumber that of the US Navy.
Britain now has 10 submarines and 70 vessels, of which 13 are frigates and six are destroyers. Despite London’s commitment to building new warships, numbers are expected to remain roughly the same in the coming years. The mismatch with the PLAN is plain for all to see, and defense cooperation with allies and partners is indispensable for Britain to keep an “unbroken” presence in the Indo-Pacific arena – a last-ditch attempt to prove it will be a global security actor even after Brexit, its exit from the European Union next March.