SEOUL – The UK’s Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group (CSG) currently forging toward the Indo-Pacific is a macho naval spectacle of note: nine ships, 32 aircraft including 18 F35s and 3,700 personnel.

Naval rivet counters, military pundits and British jingos will be transfixed by this spectacular manifestation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ambitions of a post-Brexit “Global Britain” being a global player.

However, while the force is deploying to Indo-Pacific, there is no suggestion that it will take up station in the region.

This raises perhaps the biggest question over both the current mission and London’s wider strategic aims. Does the UK’s straitened defense establishment have the means to sustain London’s “tilt” toward the East? And would the British public support such an expensive and distant footprint?

Means vs dreams

Compared to the height of its Imperial power when Britannia’s bows ruled waves across the region, its current military presence in East Asia is minimalist.

The biggest British force in the region is an infantry battalion and jungle warfare school in Brunei. Beyond that, a 50-strong naval party is based at the Indian Ocean British territory of Diego Garcia, which is leased to a much larger US force. And the Royal Navy’s British Defense Singapore Support Unit at Sembawang, Singapore, tasked with logistics and refueling, has a similarly small level of personnel.

A scattering of British liaison officers are embedded around the region, notably in South Korea, with US Forces Korea and the UN Command, and in the US, at Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii.

“A few years ago a new Southeast Asia Staff was created in the British High Commission in Singapore – they have a colonel and a squadron leader and an NCO,” said Alex Neill, a British security consultant based in Singapore. “I think the Americans had a wry smile about the Brits puffing themselves up – ‘Three guys is a staff?’ But it is something.”

People line the shore to watch as tug boats maneuver the 65,000-tonne British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth into Portsmouth Harbour in Portsmouth, southern England on August 16, 2017, Photo: AFP / Ben Stansall

Compared to the mighty 375,000-strong US Indo-Pacific Command, which oversees a vast range of assets including the 7th Fleet, a US Marine division in Okinawa and the 2nd US Infantry Division and 7th Air Force in Korea, the Americans had a right to smile.

The command’s title may hark back to distant World War II and the Southeast Asia Command (SEAC). It may showcase British ignorance of the wider region: The more economically and strategically vital Northeast Asia, comprising China, Japan, the Korean and the Russian Far East, apparently does not figure.

This strategic myopia is reflected in how a budget-challenged, Covid-hammered London is sending mixed signals about global commitment.

“’Global Britain’ is based on limited resources; we increased defense spend but cut the overseas development budget,” said John Nilsson-Wright, a Cambridge University academic and senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at think tank Chatham house. “That is a tangible example showing that the Johnson administration lacks real strategic depth in its thinking.”

He sniffed that Indo-Pacific occupies a grand total of two pages in the UK’s 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy – and includes a typo.

Even so, “a key thought line looking ahead is the challenge of China as a global player and how best to manage that,” Nilsson-Wright noted. He asked, “Where is our leverage?”

That question could be posed to the Admiralty. The Royal Navy, with  two new aircraft carriers on its order of battle – meaning, usually, one operational while the other rests and refits – has multiple commitments both within and beyond NATO: In home waters, in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Gulf. 

It fields some big, sexy assets, including two F35 aircraft carriers, four nuclear-missile submarines and three elite Royal Marine Commando battalions. But it is undermanned and deploys just 19 destroyers and frigates – the workhorses of any navy.

So can the UK sustain a presence in the Indo-Pacific?

“The UK ‘s military will be too stretched to operate in the Indo-Pacific,” said retired Indian Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, the founding partner of think tank Deepstrat. “It will not be sustainable for the UK.”

There have already been some embarrassing miscommunications.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sits in the captain’s chair on the bridge of HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth, UK, prior to its departure for Asia. Photo: AFP: Leon Neal

“This has been a subject of discussion since the Ministry of Defence started messaging about heading out this way and The Times rather clumsily reported that a British aircraft carrier would be based in the Far East,” said Neill. “People raised their eyebrows as there is no capability to do that.”

There are a handful of possibilities for UK defense planners. One option would be up-manning its Indian Ocean presence. “It may look at the option of using Diego Garcia either as a permanent post or staging post,” suggested Sinha.

The facility at Sembawang, Singapore, is a far cry from the “Gibraltar of the East” that it once was. Even so, “there has been talk of expanding the facility,” said Neill, who expects it to double in size and begin stockpiling gear.

Another alternative, Neill noted, would be to integrate with extant and extensive US basing in Japan. Tosh Minohara, a Japan-US relations expert at Kobe University agrees.

“The UK should make a statement that is it a resident power as a maritime power,” he suggested. “Maybe Japan could provide a base at Sasebo, which is facing toward China.” 

In terms of assets, Asia Times has learned that the Royal Navy may station an offshore patrol vessel in the region. Crews will fly in and out from the UK, enabling the vessel to remain on permanent regional patrol, though it is unclear where – Diego Garcia? Singapore? Sasebo? – it might be based or even if it would have a base.

Still, in a region prowled by Chinese carrier strike groups, the sub-frigate-sized 2,000-ton vessel may provide a presence, but would not be a significant deterrent and would have limited defensibility. It would certainly not be symbolic of millennial Britannic might.

Even so, cynics among the British chattering classes may be surprised to learn that their military – which has fought with considerable success in the region over two centuries against enemies ranging from Imperial Chinese and Japanese forces to North Korean soldiers and communist guerillas – engenders considerable respect.  

“The UK still retains great international prestige in many nations, because of the sacrifice that British people have made,” said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general. “With just a token commitment to the region, they would bring prestige and stability.”

The British public, focused on domestic concerns such as the economic challenges of Brexit and the possible breakup of the UK, may evince little interest in the Indo-Pacific. However, the British defense establishment gets it.

“Once a year I speak to the Royal College of Defense Studies and I see growing attention, so from the military perspective the ‘tilt’ is good,” said Chatham House’s Nilsson-Wright. “But there is a gap between military needs and public attitudes on the awareness of the importance of Britain being a player in the region.”

Regardless of an in-region footprint, power is not static, it is projectable, hence London may not need to deploy a standing presence. Indeed, Neill notes that the UK Ministry of Defense has used the adjective “episodic” regional deployments, which does not nail down any particular time frame.

Seen in that light, the CSG cruise looks set to prove – bar any unforeseen accidents – that the UK possesses power projection capabilities. And that is one of the two stated reasons for the deployment.

Royal Navy Merlin helicopters perched next to the launch ramp of HMS Queen Elizabeth. Photo: Steve Parsons / POOL / AFP)

Why does London need an Indo-Pacific presence?

The other reason is to enforce a rules-based international order, notably, in terms of freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, thereby securing seaborne lines of communication and global trade.

But experts differ over FONOPs. After all, South Korea, whose economy is massively reliant upon exports and trade, does not conduct them, and Japan is a late and cautious player to the game.

Still, Chun, the ex-Korean general, makes a sound case for FONOPs operations, citing China’s “nine-dash line” under which it claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, and its potential anti-trade actions against any regional player with whom Beijing is displeased.

“If principle is not fought for, then China could stop, say, any container ship and say, ‘You are carrying stuff for Taiwan, or for the Uighurs,’” he said. “China has overstepped the mark and is paying for it in terms of its credibility.”

But others say the aim of FONOPs is unlinked to commerce.

“This narrative about the need to police international waters is a bit misleading – why on earth would China want to disrupt trade?” asked security analyst Neill. “It would not only be an act of economic suicide, it would kill off all the regional economies.”

Seen in this critical light, the real but unstated aim of FONOPs is not for the benefit of tankers, bulk carriers and container ships, but for warships.

“What is at the heart of the matter is the ability of the US Navy and its allies to navigate through the South China Sea and the East China Sea,” stated Neill.

And firming up a relationship with its key ally is almost certainly a key driver behind London’s cruise.

“The problem for Johnson is that this image of ‘plucky Britain’ that informs his romantic political nostalgia is not matched by the UK’s declining political influence,” said Nilsson-Wright.

With Johnson and his Conservatives having leveraged the UK away from its most influential post-war international grouping, the EU, upgrading London’s “special relationship” with Washington may well be sound politics. Not only does it grant London a seat at the table in Washington, but it also de-risks adventures by having US personnel on deck.

Yet tying its defense future so closely to the US overlooks recent British history.

The UK’s most successful military adventures of the post-war era have arguably been carried out without US troops: The suppression of a communist insurgency in Malaysia in the 1950s, “Konfrontasi” with Indonesia in the 1960s, the “secret war” in Oman in the 1970s, the Falklands War of the 1980s and the stabilization of Sierra Leone in the 1990s. 

By contrast, joint campaigns that the UK has joined with the US  – notably, in Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq – had less successful outcomes. Still, the UK is hardly the only Atlantic power that is tilting toward the Pacific.

“Five years ago when I lived in Europe, the Europeans were way more disconnected from Asia than America was,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based American scholar of international relations at Troy University. “Then they started getting burned, and there was a rude awakening: They are no longer looking at China with rose-colored lenses.”

British troops may be interlopers, but are no strangers to the region: British soldiers fighting under the banner of the US-led UN Command deep inside North Korea prepare to receive Chinese attack in October 1950. Photo: State Library of Victoria

Washington’s Western allies pile east

The powerful, US-led NATO alliance was traditionally postured against the Soviet Union and its successor state, the Russian Federation. Even so, the US successfully rallied “coalitions of the willing” to join its out-of-theater “Global War on Terror,” in the Middle East.

With that messy struggle past its peak, a larger, more old-fashioned state-vs-state and system-vs-system confrontation is shaping up further east. As an ever-more-prosperous and powerful China flexes its muscles, the US is digging deeper into the Indo-Pacific.

Though Washington has a loose network of alliances in the region, no formal NATO-type multinational body exists.

The US leads the semi-official “Quad” grouping of Indo-Pacific allies – Australia, India and Japan – that all have issues, albeit at different levels of intensity, with China. But as it stands at present, that grouping is unofficial and lacks teeth: There is no mutual defense pact. 

Washington also has bilateral defense treaties with Japan and South Korea, two countries that boast mighty economies and powerful militaries.

However, South Korea’s forces are largely postured toward North Korea and lack expeditionary focus. Japan’s forces, notably its Maritime Self Defence Force, have real punch, but are constitutionally and politically restrained from trigger pulling.

Moreover, due to endless disputes between Seoul and Tokyo over history and historiography, Washington, to its intense frustration, has been unable to forge a trilateral alliance in the East China Sea/Sea of Japan.

And that is important territory covering China, North Korea and the Russian Far East. Moreover, a nascent Beijng-Moscow defense partnership is growing in the region.

Chinese forces joined Russia’s giant “Vostok” exercise in 2018, and have more recently conducted joint aerial drills with Russian warplanes – drills that exploited air gaps between Japan and South Korea.

For Washington, China’s rise makes the Indo-Pacific the critical theater, while its patchwork of partnerships makes it a complex alliance-scape. Other Western players are also recognizing the overall importance of the Indo-Pacific.

France is ahead of the UK. Paris, which has two million French citizens in its Pacific territories, deployed its own Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group to the region in 2019.

A French naval officer in front of the Vendémiaire frigate. Photo: Twitter

It is also deploying liaison officers on Australian warships in the region. This month, its troops conducted joint exercises in Kyushu with the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force and US soldiers.

A Dutch frigate has joined the Queen Elizabeth CSG and a German vessel is set to deploy to the region in November-December. Moreover, a number of Western navies, including Canada’s, have joined the US-led low-profile Proliferation Security Initiative, which monitors North Korean shipping in the Western Pacific.

“The message is clear: it is not just the US that is challenging China, it is in tandem with key allies,” said Richard Heydarian, who holds a geopolitics chair at the University of the Philippines. “We may see more of the French and Germans and other partners of the Quad – look at the cumulative effect.”

But even against this backdrop of increasing Western presence in the East, Washington is likely to be pleased to see arguably its closest ally, London, staking a position in the region. After all, Paris has always had a “one-step-removed” relationship to Washington, while Berlin is hedging its bets: The German warship will be making a port call in Shanghai.

This could be why Washington has placed so many top-tier US assets – there are 10 US Marine F35s on the Queen Elizabeth’s deck and a US destroyer in her escort group – under British command.

But that is not just a political favor to a prized ally. Rather, it ensures watertight interoperability in a region where the two navies have not fought alongside each other since the Korean War.

While the CSG’s eastward deployment has won massive press in the UK as marking a “new chapter,” it actually has recent precedents. On the naval front, Britain’s former flagship, HMS Albion, and two frigates have recently traversed the region.

On the army front, British battlegroup headquarters had been quietly joining US and South Korean forces in their annual spring military drills up until 2018, when the drills were halted to “give space” for diplomacy with North Korea. And in 2019, British troops conducted exercises with Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force.

Such engagements – the CSG will be conducting a full gamut of joint drills on its eastward course – may grant post-Brexit UK increased international relevance.

The CSG deployment “is a positive development for the UK, which has to figure out the costs of isolationism – the economic mess and disruption of Brexit,” said Pinkston. “Re-engaging and participating in multilateral deployments is kind of the opposite development to Brexit.”

The ongoing regional pile on by the UK and other Western allies in the East is grist to the mill of the current US government. 

The Donald Trump administration, with its taste for unilateralism and ally-bashing is out of office, replaced by Joe Biden’s team, which has enthusiastically endorsed alliances. And diverging from the Atlanticist priorities of previous administrations, Biden appears most heavily focused on the Indo-Pacific.

Not only was the first overseas visit by Biden’s secretaries of both state and defense to Tokyo and Seoul, but the first two overseas leaders he received at the White House were Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

In the ongoing Indo-Pacific battle for hegemony, allies will not only shoulder a share of Washington’s military burden, but they will also offer political backing in international fora. London is doing both.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stalks the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth just prior to her slipping anchor and heading for her first operational deployment in the Indo-Pacific. Photo: AFP

The CSG is a formidable military burden share. As for international fora, Johnson will be overseeing the G7 meeting in London in June, which looks set to show a strong anti-China face. In addition to the G7 members, Indo-Pacific democracies Australia, India and South Korea will also be at the table, leading some commentators to dub the meeting “The D10.”

But while the expansion of China-facing partnerships might please wonks in the US foreign policy establishment, they might be less welcomed by hawks in the US defense establishment – for alliances constrain freedom of action.

“There are different implications: It is not just bringing more assets to the table with burden sharing,” said Pinkston. “Multilateralism is a restraining mechanism on big powers that draws back radical or outlier policy positions. If you have a diverse group, you bring other brains to the table.”

In a similar vein, one expert hoped that the deployment’s eventual final destination, Japan, would not simply reinforce relations. By making explicit the value of alliances it could feasibly put a lid on unrealistic jingoism in both London and Tokyo – the capitals of two historically aggressive merchant-maritime powers that unleashed unilateralist colonial ventures.

“I am all for a sober UK that is realistic about its size, place and influence in the world, shedding the delusion that it is great,” said Harukoh Sato, a scholar at the Osaka School of International Public Policy “It might help Japan to also sober up and stop chasing the ghost of past ‘great power’ status.”

This is the third and final installment of a 3-part series. Part 1 of the series, covering the contradictions in the deployment and the UK’s trade ambitions in the region, can be read here. Part 2, covering regional risks and sensitivities, can be read here.