In 1968, the United Kingdom announced the withdrawal of her military bases East of Suez. The withdrawal took effect at the end of 1971, which effectively spelled the end of the British Empire.
At its height it was the largest empire in history. At its most extensive, the British Empire comprised of 57 colonies, dominions, territories or protectorates. The British ruled about 20 percent of world’s population and governed nearly 25 percent of the world’s landmass. Today, what remains of the British Empire are 14 territories outside the British Isles.
Recently, the United Kingdom (UK) announced that a naval flotilla would set sail for Asia next month, with visits planned to more than 40 countries including India, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. The deployment is expected to last about six months.
The flotilla will include the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth accompanied by approximately 10 other warships – destroyers, frigates, support ships, a nuclear submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles. It will also participate in naval activities to mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), the military alliance that was formed in 1971 to contain Indonesia’s destabilizing policies toward Malaysia. FPDA links the UK with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand to enhance the regional security of Southeast Asia. Another alliance that the UK is a member of is the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, which affords the UK significant leverage in the region, especially in the context of the US’s shift toward increased strategic competition with China.
A significant development in the UK’s decision to go back to East of Suez happened in December 2014 when UK announced it would build a new naval base in Bahrain. This led to the promotion of the “Global Britain” mantra in 2016 after the UK left the European Union.
In 2017, UK and Oman reached an agreement giving Britain long-term basing rights at Duqm port, the only facility in the region capable of berthing the UK’s new aircraft carriers. The installation will also house a sizeable logistics and training hub for the British Army. The Royal Air Force will have access to airfields in Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Global Britain, finally, is all set to make a strategic move east of Suez.
About a year ago, there was speculation about the prospect of a large-scale re-appearance of British forces in Southeast Asia complete with aircraft carriers and new bases, which makes one wonder: With mutually economic benefits between UK and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) becoming apparent with the rate of growth in Southeast Asia, that’s enough for the UK to proceed with the Global Britain initiative. The Defense Ministry said the deployment would help deepen security and political ties and support UK’s exports and international trade. Can’t be more transparent than that.
The shift from Europe to Indo-Pacific region would certainly be welcomed by the Biden administration. And by the looks of it, it seems that what’s happening is a new Anglo-American alliance to counter China’s threat in the South China Sea (SCS). However, China is not happy with this development, warning the UK that basing an aircraft carrier in Asia would be a “very dangerous move,” which indicates that this new initiative of Anglo-American partnership must be working to elicit such warning.
Last April 9, the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group and the USS Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit – ready for action — sailed to the SCS to lend support to the beleaguered Philippine Navy.
France also deployed a naval vessel and Germany sent a frigate to the Indian Ocean. With all these naval powers being deployed to the Indo-Pacific region, it makes one wonder if NATO countries are coming to the assistance of their British and American allies? It doesn’t seem like it’s a coincidence. For one thing four western powers – three of which are nuclear-armed — are involved. Somehow there must be some coordination among them.
Philippines standing up to China
It’s interesting to note that while these western power movements in Southeast Asia are happening, the Philippines is suddenly standing up to China. The Philippines sent her most advanced warships to challenge the presence of Chinese vessels in the Juan Felipe Reef. It must have surprised China!
Why the sudden 180-degree change in the Philippines’ foreign policy? Two things have happened recently. Public opinion against China has increased in intensity. The public has been criticizing the government’s lack of action toward the Chinese occupation of Julian Felipe Reef. And then there is the rumored loss of trust of the military to the government also played a role. And thirdly, with Global Britain going East of Suez for good, the Philippines would not want to miss a chance to be part of the new Anglo-American alliance against China.
Recently, there were reports of the existence of Viber group among some military generals who were supposedly feeling restless about inaction in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and wanted to withdraw support from the government.
President Duterte knows that for him to stay in power, he has to have the strong support of the military. And what’s happening at the Julian Felipe Reef is not good for the morale of the military personnel. So there could be truth to the rumor.
European Union’s support
And of course, the Biden administration’s seriousness in making it’s presence felt in the WPS is notable, particularly when it sent the Roosevelt carrier strike group to confront the 220 Chinese vessels parked on Julian Felipe Reef. The Chinese vessels left upon seeing the Stars and Stripes flying on the American warships.
What’s surprising is the support the European Union (EU) gave to the Philippines. The EU called on all countries to respect the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines. The EU’s support is very valuable because it legitimizes the Philippines’ claim in the WPS and other disputed islands. It’s a political win for the Philippines.
The UK joined the EU, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, and Japan in endorsing the 2016 arbitral tribunal’s ruling on the SCS, which dismissed China’s nine-dash line claims as being incompatible with UNCLOS. A British naval presence in the SCS would help support freedom of navigation rights in the SCS.
While it’s good to see the UK deploying a carrier strike group in the Indo-Pacific region, the question remains: Can the UK achieve its naval ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region? Having been the greatest empire in the world at one time, the UK is coming back to a world that has changed quite a bit since the end of World War II. Now, there is Russia and China competing with the US and its allies for world leadership. The world stage is getting crowded.
But the good news is that with the long-lasting Anglo-American partnership and the NATO military alliance, Global Britain would be a welcome addition to the world’s geopolitical calculus. And with the brewing confrontation in the SCS, it places the Philippines in a peculiar position as the country most affected by the convergence of nuclear powers in the Indo-Pacific region, which could lead to open hostilities between China and the western powers, notably the Anglo-American alliance.
While war is not imminent at this time, it could be triggered by a small incident. Remember the Sarajevo Incident that sparked World War I? And Germany’s annexation of Sudetenland that led to World War II? If there is one spot on Earth where World War III could ignite, it’s going to be in the WPS, right in the Philippines’ disputed territory. And I’m sure that China is itching to grab Kalayaan Island in the Spratly Archipelago in the WPS. The only thing that is preventing it is the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, which if invoked would obligate the US to come to the defense of the Philippines.
Global Britain’s show of force seems like the opening gambit in an international geopolitical chess game involving China and the US. As someone said, “As Global Britain takes aim at China in the SCS, China is on war footing in sight of UK’s plan to deploy the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier to contested maritime area,” which begs the question: What would be China’s response?