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The UK’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific region has generated a great deal of discussion after it was included as part of the 2021 Integrated Review (IR). The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has added fuel to the fire over the UK’s stance, with the tilt being seen by some as misjudged. This article argues that despite the conflict in Ukraine and further instability in Eastern Europe, the UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a sound proposal. Firstly, I will examine the UK’s pre and post IR presence in the Indo-Pacific which sees that the tilt is progressing in the right direction. Secondly, I will analyse the arguments for and against the Indo-Pacific tilt, indicating that UK security challenges must not be insular. Finally, I will assess the UK military’s plans for the region, arguing that they must be based on realistic policies and capabilities.
UK defence presence in the Indo-Pacific: a historical and contemporary look
The UK has had a long political, economic and defence relationship with the Indo-Pacific region. Admittedly, this area, often referred to as the ‘Far East’, has had a relatively low defence focus ever since British forces withdrew from the region in the 1970s. Despite that withdrawal, the UK joined Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore to form the Five Powers Defence Arrangements (FPDA) to ensure the defence of the latter two states.1 Britain’s core contribution to the FPDA is the British Defence Singapore Support Unit, a logistics depot that fuels allied warships in the region. In the Korean peninsula, the UK is also a member of the United Nations Command (UNC). There is also the Gurkha garrison based in Brunei. Britain’s presence results in a series of important but low-key defence engagement activities. The Gurkhas have exercised with regional partners such as Australia and annual FPDA exercises which are also opportunities for meetings between Ministers and Chiefs of the Defence Staffs. HMS Daring’s nine-month deployment to the region was a significant event, allowing the Royal Navy to attend the Royal Australian Navy’s 100th anniversary, exercise with FPDA partners and conduct wider defence engagement work. All these activities, whilst constructive, do not showcase the UK as a major player in providing security in the Indo-Pacific.
Enter the Integrated Review
The 2021 IR and the complementary Defence Command Paper (DCP) presented a different, more prominent UK focus for the Indo-Pacific region.2 The IR noted that the Indo-Pacific region is the new geopolitical centre with security challenges and economic opportunities.3 The IR pledged closer defence and security with key Asian allies to ensure regional stability.4 It constantly emphasised that China is an increasingly global power that has distorted global norms and created security risks in the region.5 The DCP also highlighted China’s extensive military growth and how it military continues to threaten UK and global interests.6
The DCP detailed the exact defence contributions in the Indo-Pacific. First, it highlighted continued engagement with FPDA members, closer defence ties with India, Japan, South Korea and Pakistan. In terms of deployments, the DCP stated that a Carrier Strike Group or CSG21 would sail from the UK to northeast Asia and back. It detailed that two offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) would deploy to the region for constant patrols and defence engagement. The River-class OPVs have been criticised for its low lethality, nevertheless, HMS Tamar and Spey have performed extremely well so far. Tamar patrolled the northeast pacific, enforced UN sanctions against North Korea, exercised with FPDA navies and participated with the US Navy’s Pacific Partnership. Spey delivered humanitarian aid to Tonga, patrolled the Pitcairn Islands. It has also conducted patrols with the Fijian Navy and Indonesia’s Navy. There is an argument that heavier armed ships should have been deployed to present a more credible deterrence. However, as Commander René Balletta argued, the OPVs have high tasking availability, are economical vis-à-vis a frigate and can present a relatively high profile strategic message.
In the future, a Littoral Response or Strike Group (LRG) will be deployed to Oman and a Type 31 frigate to the wider region.7 A further addition as part of the tilt was to assign a Lieutenant General as Deputy Commander of the UNC; an small but important move that signals a renewed interest in the Korean peninsula and one that should not be overlooked.
HMS Tamar conducts sea boat exercises at anchor (UK MOD Crown copyright 2021)
CSG21 visited or engaged with twenty-three countries in the Indo-Pacific region and was praised by nations such as Japan. As part of CSG21, HMS Astute deployed to Busan and then to Australia, the latter as part of the AUKUS agreement. CSG21 was not without controversy however with HMS Diamond unable to participate in FPDA’s 50th anniversary but overall, the deployment made a significant impact on UK relations with the Indo-Pacific and other regions.
The tilt: A region too far?
The UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt may present a renewed presence in the region but it does so at a time when there has been no reduction in UK defence commitments elsewhere and the size of the British armed forces has decreased. As Dr David Blagden argued, while the Indo-Pacific is a key region, it would mean reducing defence commitments elsewhere, particularly the Euro-Atlantic which is a key defence area. Former Chief of Defence Staff, General David Richards similarly said that the Euro-Atlantic is the main defence concern and retired General Nick Houghton was against the deployment of CSG21, stating it would immediately join the US policy of deterring China without any explicit prior plans. It is true that the UK military is much smaller compared to its immediate post-Cold War size and that the Euro-Atlantic is the key area to defend. This however, does not mean that there are no threats against the UK further afield. While in post, both Richards and Houghton faced threats in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, all which are non-NATO regions.
Having a tilt and the tilt
A second argument against the the Uk’s Indo-Pacific tilt is that its entire approach is flawed. Politicians such as Dan Jarvis questioned the ability to manage the tilt when the armed forces were reducing in size. John Healey, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, has also constantly criticised the tilt, stating NATO and the Euro-Atlantic is the main area and the UK should not have moved away from that region. The illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia saw Healey again criticising the tilt as an ignorance of the European region. Another following similar criticism was that the Uk’s Indo-Pacific tilt was a pro-Brexit plan. Several MPs have stated this in light of the invasion of Ukraine, announcing it as some proposal to ignore the threat from Russia. The SNP defence spokesperson described the tilt as ‘[reeking] slightly of a post-Brexit rebound effect, trying to get as far away from the European continent as possible’.
The fact is that neither the IR nor the DCP ignored NATO or threats to the European region. The IR stated that Russia remains the most severe threat to the UK and the UK shows strong faith in NATO, and that the Alliance will remain as the foundation of the UK’s Euro-Atlantic front. It clearly stated.8 The DCP similarly noted that Russia poses the greatest conventional and nuclear threat to European interests, stating it various capabilities.9 Reviews such as the IR or the previous defence reviews do have a history of not presenting the armed forces for immediate threats – the cuts in the 1981 Nott Review prompted Argentina to invade the Falklands.10 Reviews are not ‘crystal balls’ – they cannot accurately foresee the future. Nevertheless, besides identifying Russia as the key European threat, it alos identified that the UK must also prepare for systemic competition between states and state actors.11
What about Russia? What about Ukraine?
The invasion of Ukraine still does not justify a strong criticism of the Indo-Pacific tilt. In response, the UK did not send forces to the Indo-Pacific rather, in fact it did the opposite; HMS Prince of Wales was assigned as the NATO command ship and deployed on Exercise Cold Response. The UK also sent military aid to Ukraine in the form of Starstreak surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank NLAW missiles. The UK recently announced further assets would be assigned to NATO’s New Force Model. These include an expanded brigade in Tallinn, military assistance to aid Ukraine and a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier.
The above indicates that the UK has a defence focus on the Euro-Atlantic while engaging with the Indo-Pacific. The UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a small move, not a large deviation away from the immediate European area. More importantly, the threats in the Indo-Pacific and the conflict in Ukraine show UK security challenges are global and as a parliamentary reply stated, ‘Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security are indivisible.’
A third criticism of the tilt relates to the first is that the Indo-Pacific isn’t a UK-centric area and that the UK should just let the US deal with the region. The MOD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) Global Strategic Trends (GST) series paints a clear picture of what the region actually is with regards to UK and global interests. The 2014 fifth edition of GST said that there will be discontent amongst the region’s expanding population, particularly over energy demands and religious differences. It also notes that the region contains several leading powers such as China and India which are involved in ongoing regional disputes.12 Four years later, the sixth edition similarly noted that while Asia will be economically vibrant, it faces challenges and threats do themes like climate, ageing population and congested shipping lanes.13
The security threats and challenges in Asia might not affect the UK immediately but in a globalised world, it may happen a lot quicker than we think. Furthermore, if the ignorance of the Indo-Pacific continues, state or non-states actors might take advantage and adversely affect UK interests indirectly and directly in the region. Of course, I do not foresee a ‘fall of Singapore’ comparison where the UK is caught off guard with a major conflict in the region.
NATO and China
The new Chief of the General Staff (CGS), General Patrick Sanders said that European militaries could increase defence in Europe so as to free US forces for the Pacific. It this is true, then only the US as a military superpower can feasibly address threats in the Indo-Pacific. This assumes that all US administrations will continue this policy and that each country is concerned with region-specific threats. The US is definitely addressing threats in the Indo-Pacific, having recently announced a large defence package in response to Russian aggression. The leaders of Japan and South Korea attended the recent NATO summit, telling the alliance that China poses a threat although NATO’s concern is Europe. In response, the new NATO Strategic concept noted that China poses a threat to Euro-Atlantic security and is working in concert with Russia to adversely affect the international order. The above shows threats to nations and organisations lie not just in their immediate backyard and it is premature to divide each country and focus on one geographical region.
So what needs to be done?
Increase lethality: Lethality is crucial as it provides signals not just to adversaries but also allies. It is, perhaps, a genuine weakness of the maritime pivot. The Type 31 frigate is envisioned as a constabulary warship with two 40mm guns, one 57 gun and a number of Sea Ceptor anti-aircraft missiles. Such a configuration would be suitable for benign patrols but the Type 31 will need an anti-ship capability when conducting Freedom of Navigation patrols (FONP) or deterrent acts against state actors. The planned deployment of a LRG to the region also prompts questions about its capabilities. As Nick Childs and Jonathan Bentham stated, the current Royal Navy amphibious ships lack a helicopter hangar and the capabilities of the future Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS) remain unclear.
Produce a Strategy: A second area for improvement is that of a strategy. Both France and the US have produced Indo-Pacific strategies along with defence-specific strategies for the region. A UK Indo-Pacific strategy would go into greater detail as to why the UK is tilting and explain its plans and minimise misconceptions amongst countries in the region. A strategy would thus improve communication, reducing further criticism of the tilt. There may be a strategy not published in the public domain, yet there is a published cyber strategy and a defence plan for the High North.
Increase defence engagement: Defence engagement is a crucial task for any defence plan. Diplomats and defence attachés no doubt are engaging with Indo-Pacific partners. However, high rank officials should increase visits to counterparts in the region to have a strong understanding of the area and discuss the tilt. No UK Defence Minister attended the recent Shangri-la dialogue, no doubt due to the focus on Ukraine, although the First Lord did attend. MOD and senior military officials should engage in-person with their Asian counterparts, creating stronger understanding of the tilt for the global community.
The Indo-Pacific is a important region, with the UK having long standing political, economic and defence ties with the region. The deployment of two OPVs do not represent any defence withdrawal from the Euro-Atlantic and there was no removal of the UK-led Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup in Estonia or any large-scale air or naval deployment to the Pacific when the IR was published. Europe is a key UK security concern and Russian aggression has exemplified this. Yet, British security is not one-dimensional and the tilt is a sound move. Even a small tilt towards the Indo-Pacific ensures the UK can monitor security threats properly. The UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific tilt, with all its criticisms, is the correct move. Even so, the defence plans must be improved to properly match the current and future operational environment. The defence plans for the tilt are sound, but there are undoubtedly areas for improvement.
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 and a Mphil in Development Studies from the University of Cambridge.
- Pek, W. K., 2017, The Five Power Defence Arrangements: A Contemporary Assessment, Singapore, Ministry of Defence, Pointer Journal Vol 42.4
- Cabinet Office, 2021, Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, London: Cabinet Office
- MOD, 2021, Defence in a competitive age, London, MOD
- Ibid, p,11, 17, 24
- MOD, 2021, op cit, p.2, 5,6, 7, 9, 27
- MOD, 2021, op cit., 15
- Cabinet Office, 2021. op cit, p. 8,11, 18, 26
- MOD, 2021, op cit, p.5, 9, 10, 27
- Mills, C. et al, 2020, A brief guide to previous British Defence Reviews, Number 07313: London: House of Commons https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7313/CBP-7313.pdf
- Cabinet Office, 2021, op cit, p.24, 28
- DCDC, 2014, Global Strategic Trends, Fifth Editon, Shrivenham, Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, South & East Asia and Oceania section, pp.147-153
- DCDC, 2018, Global Strategic Trends, Sixth Edition, Shrivenham, Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre. East Asia and South East Asia section, pp.174-190