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The UK’s Defence in the Pacific, or Lack Thereof?

Tensions are flaring up between the UK and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over Chinese intervention into Hong Kong with the recent introduction of new security laws by China being the latest breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The PRC has also been militarising the South China Sea, sparking incidents with Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) members and other Southeast Asian nations. Across East Asia, there are other areas of concern such as the Korea Peninsula and the Rohingya crisis.

The British government has touted the slogan ‘Global Britain’ as its post-Brexit policy and the UK has military personnel and equipment stationed in the region. This is all well and fine, but this article will argue that the UK’s current security policy in East Asia, whilst commendable, is neither sufficient robust nor coherent to face the challenges of a volatile East Asia.

UK defence presence in East Asia: Marginal improvements

This structure survived the trimming in SDSR 2010. SDSR 2015 saw the creation of a British Defence Staff (BDS) (Asia-Pacific) – now BDS Southeast Asia, a post to maintain and enhance defence engagement and relationships in the region. 1 At least four Royal Navy warships have deployed to the region and defence engagement has deepened. 2 Short term training has been maintained with FPDA allies and expanded to other countries such as the Philippines.3

This is all commendable and hats off to those who initiated this change. Nevertheless, this does not fully address the security challenges of East Asia. Firstly, the size of the deployments pale in comparison to that of other like-minded allies. In the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly to then Secretary of State for Defence Penny Mordaunt that she ‘brought along’ the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier group to Singapore. This was in response to the 2018 SLD where she challenged her predecessor Gavin Williamson as to which country would deploy warships to the region.4

Second and more importantly, these reforms and deployments are happening in the absence of a much wider British government policy. At the 2019 SLD, both France and the US published policy papers outlining their national  policy towards the Asia-Pacific region.5 In stark contrast, there was no such policy from the UK, leaving Penny Mordaunt facing questions about the UK’s stance in the region.6 It may well be that relevant policy papers have been written, but these have not been published in the public domain. Nevertheless, it is curious that there so far has been no announcement on social media or other means of any UK paper focused on the Asia-Pacific.7

Barriers to a UK defence policy for the Asia-Pacific

There is a clear need for a substantive UK defence policy and presence in the Asia-Pacific, yet the question remains what is hindering the formation? It is often cited that the lack of a substantial budget for the MOD curtails any sustainable presence in the region. I argue that it is a focus of closer geographical national interests that has actually curtailed UK efforts towards an Asia-Pacific policy.

First, an issue constantly brought up during Brexit movement has been that NATO, not the EU, is the ‘cornerstone’ of British defence.8 This has resulted in the UK bolstering its presence in the Euro-Atlantic zone. While not actually displacing personnel from the Asia-Pacific, this still has indirectly re-aligned British defence policy closer to home.

Type 23 Frigate HMS Argyll exercising with vessels the Malysian, Singapore, Australian and New Zealand Navy in the South China Sea whilst on Exercise Bersama Lima 2018. (MOD Image Library)

Second, other security hotspots have also influenced the deployment of British assets away from the Asia-Pacific. A prominent example is HMS Defender’s deployment. It was announced that the Type 45 destroyer would deploy to the region in August 2019, covering months-long gaps of Royal Navy warships in the region.9 Weeks later, the ship was diverted to the Straits of Hormuz to counter Iran’s aggressive actions and ensure the safety of merchant vessels in the area.10 While this was a perfectly understandable move, it meant another absence of a Royal Navy warship in the Asia-Pacific.

More importantly, there has yet to be a coherent, whole-of-government approach towards the Asia-Pacific. Defence policies are after all, a subset of wider government policy and interests. As I noted in my article in the Diplomat, there was a dispute between then Defence Secretary Williamson and then Chancellor of the Exchequer over HMS Queen Elizabeth’s pending deployment to the region.11 The UK government under Prime Ministers May12 and Johnson allowed the controversial Chinese firm Huawei to construct parts of the UK’s 5G network, although the latter has signalled a possible change of course.13

The Foreign Office has previously criticised religious percussion in China, yet in trade talks with Chinese technology giants, British officials failed to mention the percussion of the Muslim Uighur community.14 With a disjointed policy – economic-focused departments favouring a cordial relationship with China while foreign policy-oriented departments addressing state-centric aggression –  UK defence policy in the Asia-Pacific cannot be developed and adversaries might exploit this disjointed approach.

Towards an Asia-Pacific Policy in the Integrated Review

There is still optimism for the UK’s defence approach towards the Asia-Pacific, with the impending Integrated Review (IR). This is despite its delay due to the COVID-19 outbreak.15 Below are some suggestions what the IR should consider and implement:

  • Improve the berths at the logistic depot in the British Defence Singapore Support Unit, Singapore.
  • Intensify defence engagement with not just FPDA partners but other like-minded allies in the region such as Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan.16

  • Deploy a Specialised Infantry Regiment to engage with forces in the region.17 Align a British Army unit towards the East Asian region.18

  • Increase defence connections between British OF-8s and OF-9s with counterparts in East Asia. Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Hillier19 and Admiral Sir Philip Jones20 have visited the region however, this has not been a frequent engagement. Senior officer engagement will improve understanding of security threats.

  • Increase the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) presence by increasing MOD-led programmes in a wider range of East Asian countries.

  • Cease the usage of the term ‘Far East’ by MOD and service accounts as that is a colonial and archaic term.21 Refer to the region as ‘Asia-Pacific’ or as the US DOD has recently used, ‘Indo-Pacific’.

There are many other possible suggestions that can be listed, but these are budget-related suggestions and the UK defence budget is still uncertain. Some suggestions would also border what is termed as ‘fantasy fleet’ ideas which are not appropriate.

Concluding remarks

The Integrated Review must present concrete proposals for UK defence and security in Asia-Pacific. Although the UK’s current defence policy in the Asia-Pacific is certainly not weak, it needs to be strengthened quickly as security threats in the region intensify. Defence does not exist in a vacuum and wider government assurance is needed to ensure a credible plan.

Jie Sheng Li

Jie Sheng Li is a freelance research analyst with interests in Southeast Asia, global political economy, multilateral organisations, security and international development. He has a PhD in International Political Economy from the University of Birmingham.


  1. Ministry of Defence, 2016, ‘Britain extends global Defence reach’ https://www.gov.uk/government/news/britain-extends-global-defence-reach
  2. I mean intensified defence engagements by the head of BDS Asia-Pacific through visits through the Asia-Pacific region. Verified via two Freedom of Information requests.
  3. Chanon, Mark, 2019, Royal Navy and Marines help Philippine Army after five-month battle with ISIS terrorists, 14 May 2019 Cornwalllive https://www.cornwalllive.com/news/uk-world-news/royal-navy-marines-help-philippine-286570
  4. Parly, Florence, 2019, Speech on ‘Asia’s Evolving Security Order and its Challenges’2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore https://www.iiss.org/events/shangri-la-dialogue/shangri-la-dialogue-2019
  5. For the French policy paper see https://www.defense.gouv.fr/english/dgris/international-action/regional-issues/france-unveils-its-defence-policy-in-the-indo-pacific . For the US policy paper, see https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF
  6. Ibid, mentioned during the questions and answers during the plenary session. I also argued about the lack of a UK Indo-Pacific strategy in an article in the Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/where-is-britains-indo-pacific-strategy/
  7. A paper on the UK and the High North has been published by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), but only accessible via MODnet. https://twitter.com/MOD_DCDC/status/1238414426266632192 . DCDC has published articles on the African region https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/regional-survey-africa-out-to-2045 and the Baltic region https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/future-security-challenges-in-the-baltic-sea-region but none specifically on the Asia-Pacific region.
  8. See for example, Lancaster, Mark, 2019, EU Defence Policy: Written question – 275127, 9 July 2019, London: Hansard https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2019-07-09/275127/ and Kwarteng, Kwasi, 2019, EU Defence Policy: Written question – 247681, London: Hansard https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2019-04-25/247681/
  9. Royal Navy News, 2019, HMS Kent, HMS Defender Deploy on operations, 12 August 2019 https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2019/august/12/190812-hms-kent-and-hms-defender-deploy-on-operations
  10. Royal Navy News, 2019, HMS Defender to join efforts to support safe passage of Gulf shipping, 24 August 2019, https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2019/august/24/190824-defender-joints-gulf-mission
  11. Li, Jie Sheng, 2019, Where Is Britain’s Indo-Pacific Strategy?, Washington DC: The Diplomat https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/where-is-britains-indo-pacific-strategy/
  12. Swindon, Steven and Hymas, Charles, 2019, Theresa May defies security warnings of ministers and US to allow Huawei to help build Britain’s 5G network, 24 April 2019, Daily Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/04/23/theresa-may-defies-security-warnings-ministers-us-allow-huawei/
  13. Rayner, Gordon, 2020, Boris Johnson to defy warnings from Trump and own MPs to announce Huawei will build part of 5G network, 27 January 2020, Daily Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/01/27/boris-johnson-defy-warnings-trump-mps-announce-huawei-will-build/ and Donaldson, Kitty et al, 2020, U.K. Opens Talks With Huawei Rival as Johnson Confronts China, 4 June 2020, Bloomberg News https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-03/u-k-opens-talks-with-huawei-rival-as-johnson-confronts-china
  14. [1] Hunt Jeremy, 2019, Persecution of Christians across the Globe independent review: Foreign Secretary’s launch speech, 30 January 2019, London: Foreign Office https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launch-of-the-independent-review-into-the-persecution-of-christians-across-the-globe-foreign-secretarys-speech and Williams, Oscar, 2020, Revealed: UK government ignored Uighur repression in talks with China’s tech giants, 16 January 2020, New Statesman Tech  https://tech.newstatesman.com/policy/uk-officials-china-tech-giants-trade-trip
  15. Chuter, Andrew, 2020, UK hits pause on defense review due to coronavirus, 15 April 2020, Defensenews https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2020/04/15/uk-hits-pause-on-defense-review-due-to-coronavirus/
  16. As previously suggested in a written evidence to the former House of Commons Defence Committee, http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/defence-committee/uk-defence-in-the-asiapacific-region/written/98083.pdf. Dr Philip Shelter-Jones also recommended stronger engagement with Japanese forces in his written evidence http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/defence-committee/uk-defence-in-the-asiapacific-region/written/102204.pdf
  17. Mr Richard Williams recommends basing the new 3 RGR in Brunei, http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/defence-committee/uk-defence-in-the-asiapacific-region/written/102231.pdf
  18. aligned with East Asia.
  19. Tweet by Republic of Singapore Air Force https://twitter.com/TheRSAF/status/1049575629211951104
  20. Lin, Melissa and Ng, Huiwen, Navy chiefs call on Ng Eng Hen, 17 May 2017, Straits Times https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/navy-chiefs-call-on-ng-eng-hen
  21. The term ‘Far East’, dating back to colonial times, has still been used by MOD and service sites. For example, https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2018/june/18/18018-hms-argyll-sails-on-far-east-deployment , https://twitter.com/AdmTonyRadakin/status/1157348308144316422  and https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-red-arrows-are-back-to-kuwait

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