By Maryam Khormaei

British strategy in the Indo-Pacific region: Conquest of the world from the deck of a ship 

December 19, 2018

TEHRAN - The scope of British interaction with the Southeast Asian region extends from security-military to economic-educational, and as predicted, this gets more intense post-Brexit, with the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA) treaty, Asia’s only collective security arrangement. 

British presence in the southeastern Asia security treaty, the adherence to the deployment and maintenance of some British military in the region to participate in joint exercises with the parties to the treaty, the periodic presence of British naval forces in the region, and the fact that the military chiefs of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Brunei have all studied in the UK show the depth of London's relationship with the countries of Southeast Asia. 

Britain's assistance in combating terrorism and cyber-attacks, the fact that Singapore alone has 5,000 British companies in the country, the London multi-million dollar pledge to create economic reforms in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar, Britain's investment In the area of energy security in the region, and finally investment in the education sector in the countries of Southeast Asia, are signs of Britain's position in this part of the world.

With the withdrawal from the European Union, London has a dream far greater than simple alliance with the countries of Southeast Asia and is independently seeking a strategy to revitalize British power in the global arena
Therefore, in pursuit of its dream, the post-Brexit Britain is looking for a much larger area than the Southeast Asia that covers the ocean's blue zone and adds a new vocabulary to the world’s political encyclopedia by multiplying the word “Indo-Pacific”.

Earlier, in drawing up the prospect of a worldwide geopolitical future, the United States cited a policy of "turning to the Pacific" that under Barack Obama's Presidency (2008-2016), pushed the current power of the international community to a balance of power across Asia. However, the incumbent US President Donald Trump, on his trip to India in November 2017, first used the term “Indo-Pacific” instead of the Pacific.

In the UK, the terminology “turning to the Indo-Pacific” was used from the beginning of 2017, as former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said during a trip to Australia in July of 2017, “To strengthen the relationship, nowhere is better here than the Indo-Pacific, an area that is economically third in the world and holds two thirds of the world's population.”

In July 2018, British Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson announced the adoption of a multilateral and strategic approach to the Indian Ocean to mark an agreement on the recognition of the Indo-Pacific. The adoption coincided with British Prime Minister Teresa May’s trip to Delhi on April 18, 2018, when she met her Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Nandranda Moody. On that day for the first time, the parties formally used the word Indo-Pacific in a joint statement instead of the Indian Ocean.

In addition to the Pacific, the Indian Ocean in comparison with the past has more semantic meaning in the international trade. This body of water has 63 harbors, accessed by three straits including the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca (the Andaman Sea Point in the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific Ocean in the Pacific Ocean) and the Bab-Al-Mandeb Strait (which connects the India Ocean through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea). The Indian Ocean accounts for nearly 80 percent of the world's oil transit.

The Indian Ocean overlooks most world’s conflict zones including, Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Thus, the strategic position of the Indian Ocean plays a role in the future of the world's trade-security (energy).  The Mahanian strategy governs the approach of global powers - a strategy that, in the event of a war, will control the sea front necessary for trade and other stuff.

The main reason behind the development of this Indo-Pacific arena is Beijing's insistence on expanding its naval influence in the Indian Ocean and beyond in the Mediterranean. China wants to develop its capabilities in deep waters and strengthen the strategic ports to ultimately control trade routes and energy lines originating from the Middle East.

With the withdrawal from the EU, the UK independently pursues a global recovery strategy, which is part of the US-UK Security Alliance. On the pretext of protecting the law-making system that is inclusive of all, the UK has stepped into this Indo-Pacific arena.

The deployment of three vessels last year to monitor the imposition of North Korea's sanctions and protect high seas shipping right reveals the role of the British Navy in the global strategy.

The fact that Britain has been threatening the small Republic of Mauritius to preserve the Chagos Archipelago or Chagos Islands in the heart of the Indian Ocean illustrates the importance of the region and the determination of London to maintain its strategic position.

hagos Islands currently host America's Diego Garcia military base. Britain had once claimed that it would return the islands to Mauritius when they no longer had military use for the location; however, the promise has been postponed in the Indo-Pacific area.

Among the recent British activities in the Indo-Pacific filed is:
In August, Britain, Australia, France, and the US decided to open embassies in the Pacific region. The plan would boost the number of diplomats in the area and further engage their involvement as leaders to curb China's power. The vote of each of these small populated nations is considered a political weight in the United Nations, while they control a large part of the ocean.

In September, British navy Albion broke the Beijing red line, while approaching Xisha Island in the South China Sea. Britain's top naval chief, Sir Phillip Jones, said his country is obliged to support its allies in the South China Sea region. His statement shows that Britain is planning to restart shipping near the Chinese artificial islands.

Also in September, Japan's largest aircraft carrier, known as Kaga, joined the British HMS Argyll in the Indian Ocean for a drill in the disputed area of the South China Sea.

In September the UK announced it is prepared to part take in a coalition of seven other countries including the US, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, France, South Korea, and Japan. The goal of this alliance is to monitor the United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

Also in September, the United Kingdom announced an intention to send the first domestic radar to orbit the earth using an Indian missile. This radar satellite, called NovaSAR, has multiple roles, but its main role is to observe suspicious shipping activities in the vast ocean.
In October, British forces conducted exercises on Japanese soil for the first time in history. It was the first time that another foreign troop, except the US, stepped in Japan’s territory. The maneuver kicked off one year after May’s visit and about two weeks after Britain's Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt's visit to Japan, with the aim of strategic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region to curb China and confront the threats of North Korea.

However, the United Kingdom is cautious in dealing with China and pursues balanced relations and interaction with China. For example, Ian Levy, technical director for cybersecurity and resilience at the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in a recent statement urged London allies to engage and collaborate with China on cybersecurity. The reason for this change of approach, he argued was the speed of online penetration and the development of Chinese technology.

This is while Britain is still interested in the construction of a number of new power plants with China's largest nuclear company, China General Nuclear Power Group or CGN, while the US claims that the Chinese company is stealing information from its partners with the aim of using civilian nuclear technology for military purposes.

In recent years, we have been witnessing cooperation between the British and Chinese naval forces, including the arrival of two Chinese frigates in the UK, tied up in the port of London in October 2017. Another area of British-Chinese cooperation is combating piracy and dealing with natural disasters.

So the British strategy in the Indo-Pacific region is to maintain close cooperation with the navy of all the countries on the scene, but the extent of this partnership changes as London’s interest changes. If China decides to expand influence, Britain won’t hesitate to support the Indian-Japanese-Australian-American coalition, even a tripartite coalition between Britain-Australia-France is expected to be formed. This is while the Five Power Defence Arrangements, FPDA, between Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, and Malaysia also exists.
So the ultimate strategy is to curb China through interaction and, at the same time, maintain unity with friends.

But Britain's return to the "East of the Suez Canal" will surely be difficult. Around half a century ago, with the decline of its empire and colonial independence like India and Singapore, Britain made a historic decision to leave East Asia and the Persian Gulf. However, in 2013, the Royal United Services Institute, RUSI, the world's oldest independent think tank on international defense and security, announced Britain’s return to the east of the Suez Canal.

Indeed, the plan was to expand Britain's military power from the European continent to the Far East and the Persian Gulf, and the signs of it are the reopening of the Bahrain naval base and the establishment of a military base in Oman.

Britain post Brexit faces two challenges: the commitment to securing Europe and the expansion of power beyond Europe. The first is due to the British geographic location and the shortage of manpower.

Second, exacerbating tensions with Moscow will prevent the UK to dispatch troops to the east of the Suez Canal. That is because, despite the withdrawal from the EU, the preservation of the continental is still a priority for London, while at the same time an increase in force in Afghanistan will prevent such ambition.

With this in mind, the only way to expand the power on the east of the Suez Canal is through the Navy, a plan that is backed by British Secretary of State for Defence Williamson, and comes from the theory of Queen Elizabeth's fleet deployment to the Indo-Pacific in the 2020s. However, due to the shortage of manpower and the need for maintenance and repair, Britain cannot simultaneously keep two aircraft carriers in the Indo-Pacific region unless they can get help from their allies' relief vessels.

Thus, the UK's decline of commitment to Europe is the biggest challenge facing London on the east of the Suez Canal.

The UK Foreign Ministry document in March 2018 sets out Britain’s global strategy, and calls the United States, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific area, as the three major centers of the world economy and political influence for Britain’s post-Brexit, and says London must continue its path and prioritize affairs according to current issues in each region.

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