SEOUL – A complex range of strategic, diplomatic and trade imperatives are intersecting as the UK’s Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group sails into the Indo-Pacific on its first operational deployment.

At a time when the West is engaged in soul-searching over past misdeeds, history hangs heavy.

Much of Indo-Pacific is former Imperial territory, with the UK having formerly colonized India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore. The UK has also fought multiples wars in the region, from the imperial aggression of the Opium Wars to the hellish battles of the Pacific and Korean conflicts to low-level jungle campaigns in post-war Malaya and Borneo.

But millennial Britain – a middle power at best – is hardly positioned to re-establish any kind of hegemony in millennial Asia.

Instead, with the UK having severed ties with the EU, the mission is to upgrade trade, while reinforcing partnerships and generating strategic goodwill across the region.

This paradigm suggests that – assuming the flotilla scrupulously follows all appropriate diplomatic protocols – past history will be over-ridden by the more immediate priority that unites the UK and multiple Asian nations.

That is, the rising competition with an East Asian superpower that is looking increasingly neo-imperialistic as it combines both military muscle and economic largesse to seize influence.

China has staked claims over most of the South China Sea, made inroads into the Indian Ocean and is actively pressing into the East China Sea.

Seeing a geographically distant, Anglosphere interloper voyaging into a region where China is engaged in an intense rivalry with the United States does not sit well with Beijing.

China’s displeasure

China’s rulers – who have kept alive memories of the depredations their country suffered at the hands of Imperial Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries – have already made clear their displeasure with the cruise.

Against this backdrop, the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group, or CSG, will conduct exercises and drills, although port calls look set to be severely curtailed due to the ongoing resurgence of Covid-19 across the region.

Viewed from afar, it might appear that the nations the CSG will visit will be similarly postured against China. But that is simplistic.

While some will welcome the deployment, others will be less keen to be drawn into what looks like a British reinforcement of America’s fraught rivalry with China as the CSG traverses regional hotspots, from the Indian Ocean to the Sea of Japan.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his element in the cockpit of an F35. Photo: AFP

Australia, India, ASEAN

The British CSG tour comes at a time when Anglosphere cousin Australia is suffering near-frozen relations with China. Both capitals, with conservative administrations in power, are politically aligned.

“I think Canberra and London are of the same ilk,” said Chin-hao Huang, a political scientist at the Yale-National University of Singapore. “Both governments have rather skeptical views about what is happening with regional security with regards to China.”

And with a bilateral free trade agreement, or FTA, process under discussion, “adding security involvement and commitment is probably something that would be received with open arms,” Huang said.

Following last year’s deadly skirmishes on the China-Indian border in the Himalayas, Quad member India – which also fought a border war against China in 1962 – looks to be on board.

“India is the only one in the Quad which has locked horns with China – the only country which has shown China its place,” said retired Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha, the founding partner of think tank Deepstrat.

“Even on the maritime front, India has challenged China in its presence in the Indian Ocean – this is an area through which 68% of China’s energy requirements transit.”

The recent border clashes with China may be pushing India further away from its traditional stance of non-alignment.

“There is growing concern in the India strategic community of being flanked on the eastern and western peripheries by China,” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based security consultant. China has economic and infrastructure projects in Myanmar and Pakistan, as well as access to ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

India is a key partner

The Indian military was largely built on the model of the Raj’s armed forces, which fought under UK command in both the Opium Wars and the Burma theater in World War II.

Thanks to its naval base in the Andaman Islands – controlling northern access to the strategic Straits of Malacca – India is a key partner for any China-facing naval partnership. Moreover, London and New Delhi are working toward a free trade agreement.

Given all this, the CSG visit will likely be forward rather than backward-looking.

“Issues related to India’s colonial past are not relevant to our common security concerns,” added Saikat Datta, a partner at Deepstrat. “The need for greater sharing of intelligence, military interoperability and joint strategies overrides the past.”

An Indian Air Force Hercules military transport plane prepares to land at an airbase in Leh, bordering China, on September 8, 2020. – Photo: AFP/Mohd Arhaan Archer

Concretely, Datta suggested the inclusion of India in intelligence-sharing mechanisms such as the Five Eyes or the 14 Eyes programs. Economically, the issue of an India-UK FTA and closer maritime ties, which “pose a significant and vital alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” are also bilateral win-wins.

London has announced that its CSG will conduct joint drills with former regional colonies Malaysia and Singapore, with whom it last fought “Konfrontasi” with Indonesia in the 1960s. But more widely, ASEAN nations are not on the same page.

Allies in ASEAN

The 10-nation regional grouping has been unable to present a united front to China, given intra-ASEAN squabbles over who owns what island or reef in the South China Sea. Partly due to this, the economic and diplomatic-centric grouping has been critiqued for its weakness on security.

“ASEAN as a whole, as a collective, will always try to emphasize neutrality and de-escalation of tensions and that benefits China,” said Richard Heydarian, an Asia Times contributor and a professorial chair in geopolitics at the University of the Philippines. “If you leave it to just ASEAN and China, China will dominate.”

Heydarian suggests that when it comes to countering China in the region, five nations in ASEAN really matter. Singapore and Indonesia are non-claimants in the South China Sea, but have pushed back against Chinese inroads, while Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are active territorial claimants.

He expects to see verbal backing for the UK’s CSG from top Manila officials – though not from mercurial President Rodrigo Duterte himself. Jakarta, he suggested, will “quietly offer support.” But the most vocal welcome could come from Hanoi.

Vietnam, now benefitting massively from manufacturing investment leaving China, has an FTA with the UK. Moreover, notes Huang, it has the region’s most awesome warrior tradition – having successfully battled France, the US and China – and is the only ASEAN nation that has signed a border-recognition treaty with China.

“The Vietnamese will welcome this, I think,” said Heydarian. “The Vietnamese are the most enthusiastic ASEAN country, as far as a greater European presence in this part of the world is concerned.”

While Covid-19 looks likely to limit port calls and runs ashore, the CSG commander will be well advised roll out his cocktail party A game. Given prickly historical memories across Southeast Asia, the Royal Navy’s diplomatic antennae will need to be tuned to their most sensitive pitch.

“In many countries in the region, there are remnants of past colonial legacies,” said Huang. “These are small and medium-sized post-colonial states in what was originally seen as a peripheral part of the world so you can understand that they suffer from insecurities.” 

An aerial view of Sansha city on Yongxing Island of the Xisha Islands, also known as the Paracel Islands, in the South China Sea. China’s weaponization of disputed islands have turned the South China Sea into a regional flashpoint. Photo: AFP

The Northeast Asia leg

Those kinds of insecurities will be less prevalent once the CSG leaves Southeast Asia in its wake. In Northeast Asia, the CSG is set to visit both South Korea and Japan – two self-assured economic powerhouses that have separate alliances with the US, as well as separate FTAs with the UK.

Not only was South Korea never colonized by the UK, but London fielded the second-largest contingent in the US-led UN Command that fought in defense of South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Even so, there are ticklish sensitivities surrounding the CSG visit.

The liberal administration in Seoul is extremely careful about irking neighboring China, its leading trade partner, and a key player in the North Korean matrix. It is also far more used to inter-operating with its key ally, the US, which stations 28,500 troops on its soil.

“Of all the countries across the region, perhaps the Koreans will be the most nonplussed about the [CSG visit] as they are so postured toward a US presence,” said Neill.

The CSG will arrive off South Korea in late August – the same month South Korean-US drills are expected to run.

Seoul is extremely wary about these exercises, which customarily move North Korea to rhetorical fury, sending blood pressures soaring across the region. Joint drills with US forces have been halted or cut back since 2018, when both Seoul and Washington engaged, diplomatically, with Pyongyang.  

Even so, the CSG is scheduled to dock at Busan, on the southeast coast. The Royal Marines embarked may hope to train with the Korean Marine Corps, based in nearby Pohang. And there is a close squadron-to-squadron relationship between British and South Korean anti-submarine helicopter units, which have British aircraft.

Asia Times understands that the details of what joint exercises will take place off or in South Korea are still unknown.

Military drills, like this mountain warfare exercise US and South Korean marines have done in the past, will be out of the question for the UK contingent. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-Hwan

Joint drills but no threats

Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, suggests that any joint drills conducted need to be done in such a way that they offer minimal apparent threat to either North Korea or China.

“I think the Brit presence would be welcome, but it would be wise to focus on diplomacy and stability rather than force projection,” he advised. “Force projection does not translate well into Korean, and who knows what it translates to in Chinese?”

He suggested that rather than “red-vs-blue” drills, exercises should focus on matters such as anti-piracy, search and rescue and humanitarian assistance in open waters.

And at a time when the US is seeking to bring the ever-squabbling South Koreans and Japanese into closer coordination, the CSG may provide a useful role model.

“The US Marine detachment aboard Queen Elizabeth may prompt a lot of strategic thought in Korea and Japan about jointness between friends and allies,” Neill said. “So that is quite an astute move by the US.”

But perhaps the most welcoming port for the UK CSG during its deployment will be in Japan. 

Tokyo is engaged in a war of nerves with Beijing over a disputed island chain, the Senkaku, or Diaoyus, and its conservative administration is more openly critical of Beijing than is Seoul – though, like Seoul, it relies on China for the bulk of its trade.

While Japan and the UK clashed during the Pacific War, those echoes have long faded. Today, the two ex-colonial nations have much in common; Japan’s navy, for example, was based upon the model of the Royal Navy.

“They still have curry on Fridays in the Japanese warships,” said Tosh Minohara, a professor of Japan-US relations at Kobe University. “And Japan sends an officer to study with the Royal Navy at Dartmouth.”

Japan’s JS Izumo will be converted from a helicopter-carrying warship to one that carries F35 fighter jets. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

Partnership with Japan

Minohara reckons that Japan – which, given constitutional restraints, is “taking baby steps” in taking a wider-ranging maritime role – is “excited” to be hosting the “state-of-the-art” Queen Elizabeth. That is doubly the case as Japan is now converting two of its own helicopter-carrying warships into F35 platforms, as is South Korea.

Both Neill and Minohara expect the CSG and Japanese forces to practice cross-decking. Neill expects Japan’s Self Defense Forces to drill escort duties and air cover. Royal Marines may also have lessons to teach the nascent Japanese Naval Infantry Brigade.

At the policy level, the visit is in-synch with Tokyo.

“The focus in Japan is on the rules-based international order, which means having partnerships,” said John Nilsson-Wright, a Cambridge-based academic and Chatham House research fellow.

“Strategic thinkers in Japan see the rise of China as presenting a fundamental threat to Japan, while recognizing the economic importance of China – and the precautionary principle of taking steps against a China that is increasingly assertive.”

Amid these risks, Japan prizes its US alliance. Even so, the diplomatic ineptitude and unilateral instincts of the Donald Trump administration sent a shudder through Japan’s defense and foreign policy establishments.

“Behind the rhetoric of close cooperation with the US are critical issues,” said Nilsson-Wright, noting that Trump raised questions “in the minds of Japan defense planners of the reliability of US extended deterrence.”

Given this, the CSG provides some reassurance – albeit, from a geographically distant friend that wields far less firepower than the US.

“It gives the feeling that Japan is not standing alone, that we have friends,” said Minohara. “I also realize it is very symbolic – if all hell breaks loose, the Brits are not going to send their aircraft carrier to Japan – but it is an alliance of values. Japanese are pro-British.”

Overall, the visit has the potential to generate considerable goodwill across the region.

“If the flotilla is well-coordinated and more than a one-off, and boosts increased maritime cooperation, closer sharing of information and intelligence, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, search and rescue – things that increase the capacity building of local navies – that is a positive result,” said Huang.

But is it, indeed, a one-off?

The bigger question is whether the UK, with its shrinking armed forces and minimalist presence in Indo-Pacific, can sustain a credible regional presence after the CSG has set sail for home.

Part 3 of this three-part series will run on the weekend. Part 1 of the series, covering the contradictions in the deployment and the UK’s trade ambitions in the region, can be read here.