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If as expected the United Kingdom leaves the European Union later this year, the one-time colonial power will again shift its gaze towards Asia.
That was confirmed last week when Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said that Britain aims to establish a new naval base somewhere in Asia in the coming years.
“This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War,” Williamson said. “This is our moment to be that true global player once more – and I think the armed forces play a really important role as part of that.”
Singapore or Brunei, two of Britain’s old colonies in Southeast Asia, could be potential sites for the broached new base, a source close to Williamson told the Sunday Telegraph, a British newspaper.
Brunei already hosts a small British military base, where a battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles is stationed and paid for by the country’s ruling Sultan.
Malaysia, another former British colony but whose government is now controlled by a known anti-British prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, appears ill-fit for the role.
It also seems unlikely that Britain would opt for an Asian country that is not part of its Commonwealth, a political association mostly composed of the UK’s former territories.
Regardless of where the prospective base is located, or how significant it will be militarily, it is yet another indication that Britain aims to play a much bigger role in Asian affairs than it has for decades.
It’s all part of the ruling Conservative party’s axiom to forge a new “global Britain.” But the move comes at a confusing time, both in Europe and Asia.
In recent years, geopolitical tensions in Asia have escalated between an assertive China, which has spread its diplomacy far and wide through its US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment scheme, and a revanchist United States keen to regain the influence and power it has lost due to China’s rise.
Britain, virtually absent from the Asia-Pacific since de-colonization more than half a century ago, appears to feel there is a place to reposition itself in the region amid the rift, to reemerge as a “true global player” in Williamson’s words.
It has certain regional backers. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, who was told by China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping recently that he might consider using military force to achieve “reunification” of the two nations, said on January 5 that she welcomed a new British military base in the region.
“Any actions that will be helpful towards maintaining peace in the South China Sea, as well as maintaining freedom of passage,” she said would be supported by Taiwan.
Few other Asian governments have publicly commented on the Britain’s planned new naval base, but it might have gone down well in regional capitals that oppose China’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea, parts of which are contested by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
“It is clearly a muscle-flexing gesture targeting China and shows closer engagement of external powers in the South China Sea disputes,” Xu Liping, a professor at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the South China Morning Post.
Since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, at which a slim majority of voters opted to leave the European Union, successive Conservative governments ill-prepared for such an outcome have scrambled not only to sort out an exit deal but also how to define Britain’s place in the world post-Brexit.
Back in January 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May said she wanted to build a “global Britain.” Months later, then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stated that Britain would be “more committed to the Asia-Pacific region” and after decades of moving its military interests westwards away from Asia the UK’s forces would be heading “back east of Suez.”
At the time, few analysts thought such utterances were more than platitudes or even delusions. For critics, it was the government trying to put a positive spin on the Brexit deal.
But, in April of last year, Britain opened a new naval base in Bahrain, its first new base east of Suez since 1971. A new training base in Oman is set to open this year. With 16 military bases across the world, Britain is second only to the US in scale.
While for decades previous governments have had nothing similar to America’s “Pivot to Asia” or Russia’s “Look East” policies, Britain has nonetheless maintained significant military interests in the Asia-Pacific.
For instance, it still holds regular military exercises with its Commonwealth partners, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom are still party to the Five Power Defense Arrangements, a defense relationship formed in the 1970s.
In September, one of its warships took part in a “freedom of navigation” exercise in the South China Sea, much to the chagrin of China, which considered it a hostile gesture.
Much like current and past American presidents, British ministers now speak of their renewed interest in Asia with a degree of moral and political benevolence.
Britain, said Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt during a speech in Singapore last week, can “act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world, those countries which share our values and support our belief in free trade, the rule of law and open societies.”
Ironically, perhaps, Hunt was speaking in an island state which has been controlled by one repressive party since its independence in 1965 and no democratic transfer looks likely any time soon.
Moreover, one likely location for Britain’s new Asia military base is Brunei, an oil rich state of less than a million people dominated by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah for more than 50 years which doesn’t make any pretense of multi-party democracy.
But Hunt’s comments about upholding “free trade” were likely better received than his rhetoric on “open societies.”
China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam all count Britain as an important trading partner, though by no means their most important. Yet trade will certainly be affected when (or if) the UK finally leaves the European Union, with which several Asian nations have or are negotiating free trade agreements (FTAs).
Senior British ministers have spent a considerable part of the last two years touring Asia to drum up support for new bilateral economic agreements once Britain is removed from the EU’s pacts.
Certain FTAs have been discussed, but formal negotiations will have to wait until after Britain leaves the EU. In that connection, Hunt toured Singapore and Malaysia last week to talk about British trade with Southeast Asia once it exits the EU.
While Japan and South Korea tend to export as much as they import from Britain, most Southeast Asia nations have gaping trade deficits.
Vietnam, which has recently agreed to an FTA with the EU, exported some US$4 billion worth of goods to Britain in 2016, according to UK trade data. Thailand exported almost the same worth of goods, while Cambodia sent almost US$1 billion. For all three, imports from Britain were worth less than a third of their exports.
It would thus be of interest for these exporters to be on friendly terms with Britain post-Brexit, lest they suffer future trade slumps. But trade, per se, isn’t enough: Vietnam, for example, trades more with Germany than with the UK.
Moreover, soon-to-be economic powerhouses like Indonesia and, quite far behind, Vietnam, are almost entirely absent in public or political conversation in Britain.
A new military base in Asia would, at least physically, demonstrate that Britain aims to be another protector of international rule of law, including in regards to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a strategic role that could translate into greater economic access to the fast-growing region.