Why the UK must have defence engagement with that region: What sort of defence engagement?

What sort of involvement?

We do get suggestions what exactly the UK should deploy to the Asia-Pacific, but more often than not, they are just voices for grandstanding. Some are just list of ideals like this from the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) a whole list of what should be UK activities in the Asia-Pacific, now and post-Brexit. What really should be the UK’s plausible response to ensure stable security in the Asia-Pacific?

The UK military and political system actually is responding without such idealistic delusions of grandeur. First, the UK should continue or even try to slowly enlarge its permanent and temporary military presence in the region. British military deployments in Southeast Asia are already significant, despite what the analyst at HJS or other think tanks claim. The British Defence Singapore Support Unit (BDSSU), aka Naval Party 1022, is extremely well-valued by not just FPDA nations but other allied and nation-states in the region. It may not be as well-broadcast in social media or the mainstream media, but it continues to provide around 1200m3 of fuel of fuel fuel to nearly warships and ships almost every two years (Source: FOIA). There’s also staff officers assigned to Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre (IFC) and more staff assigned to the Integrated Air Defence System at RMAF Butterworth as part of the FPDA. Further afield, there’s the Gurkha regiment in Brunei and as you’ve seen some ship and aircraft deployments. All these are not symbolic gestures or ‘spreading the defence jam thin’ but maintaining a strategic role and some degree of deterrence.

Can they be improved or increased? Not exactly to extremely level which the HJS analyst describes in a short period. The UK cannot also base large-scale military forces there without increasing military tensions. It, however, should maintain its personnel in FPDA and Asia-Pacific countries and send military deployments more regularly. I don’t mean a five year-gap between HMS Daring’s deployment and HMS Sutherland’s deployment, but more regular Royal Navy ship and submarine visits, British Army unit (not just personnel deployments) and RAF squadron-level deployments to FPDA exercises and with other Asia-Pacific partners. The UK simply sends personnel for FPDA exercises. It should instead send physical ships (not ship), at least platoon-sized forces and more RAF flights
to FPDA exercises to strongly affirm its role in this pact. It was already announced that the UK would deploy HMS Queen Elizabeth and its escorts. That deployment requires much financial cost and willpower and this ultimate aim should be slowly built up with more regular deployments to maintain the momentum.

Second, the UK has long-standing defence engagements with the region which can be and should be easily altered to a larger degree. Defence engagement here means not just military deployments but through personal engagement. Sir H has given an overview, albeit outdated of the roles of British Defence Attaches play in the region and globally. To update his overview, the UK has OF-6-level defence attaches in Australia, China, South Korea and non-resident accreditation (NRA) with North Korea (based in China) while the UK attache in Japan is of OF-5. Closer to Southeast Asia, British defence attaches are of OF-5 ranks in Brunei, Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines (NRA in Brunei), Thailand and Vietnam. Finally the defence attaches in Singapore and New Zealand are at OF-4 rank.

Singapore’s defence attache used to be at OF-5 rank until 2014 (see p.21) and this ‘reduction’ in my view is regrettable. This was made up as the 2015 SDSR promised the creation of a British Defence Staff (Asia Pacific) which materialised in 2016. The head of this British Defence Staff it of OF-5 rank assistant by a OF-4. On top of the these senior ranks, there is at least one British officer at the Information Fusion Centre in Changi, Singapore and more MOD civilians to sustain the BDSSU and defence attaches in the region. Defence attaches don’t just attend military events and talk to their host nation counterparts; they engage with them to deep bilateral relations and facilitate ship docking and joint military actions; they act as ambassadors for British defence exports (I mentioned the example of the Typhoon as a possible consideration for the RMAF) and they do report on military activities, aiding UK’s Defence Intelligence branch.

Give this impressive range of Defence attaches, you might think there’s no need for any change. Well, there could areas that could be strengthen. The UK has formed a strong alliance with Japan as pledged in pre-Brexit 2015 SDSR. The UK could or should elevate its defence attache is Tokyo to a OF-6 rank so as not just affirm this new relationship but also to place the defence attache on par with his/her counterparts in Beijing/Pyongyang and Seoul. One immediate challenge for this elevation is that the cost of living in Tokyo or Japan is extremely high. This is also probably why the defence attache in Singapore was reduced in rank. Second, higher-rank defence attaches need to be matched with responsibilities equal to their rank. One area the British Defence Attache in Japan or his/her assistant could work on is to created a Naval Support facility at a Japanese port, something akin to the support facility at Mina Salman port in Bahrain. This would improve support Royal Navy or other British Armed Forces transiting up to East Asia.

Beyond defence attaches, the UK should improve partnerships with more exchange personnel or personnel embedded in Asia-Pacific military forces. The UK already has a Royal Marine Brigadier as Deputy Director, International Logistics and Security Co-operation at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Recently, a Royal Navy Commander was was appointed as a liaison officer to the JSDF. These are great establishments and the UK could expand this, placing officers in other armed forces such as South Korea’s and Japan’s. Thhe UK should continue to train Asia-Pacific personnel in the whole range of British Armed Forces and likewise send British personnel on exchange in Asia-Pacific militaries to learn about their training and standard operating procedures. In fact, in 2014, two junior British Army officers went on an exchange with the PLA ground force academy. Yes you may detest how they force march and eat, but such inter-military exchanges bring about greater understanding of each other’s practices and culture, thus aiding British Defence Intelligence.

Third, the UK has engaged with the Asia-Pacific region through visits with defence-related visits by UK officials and politicians. Yes this link mentioned a whole host of them visiting Singapore. Yet, this was a one-off and most of them were just short conferences or meetings. US, Australian and other Asian leaders and senior officers have often conducted visits to maintain or strengthen relationships and the UK should like wise perform such exchanges. In Part I, detailed Williamson’s trip before and during the Shangri-la Dialogue. UK Ministers and the CDS or VCDS should affirm that they will attend this annual conference which only requires a hop on to either the RAF VIP Voyager or a normal flight. In the event of any UK General Election like in 2017, the UK MOD’s Permanent Secretary can take the place of the Secretary of State. All this would again deepen defence and security relations with individual countries or wider Asia-Pacific pacts like the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM-Plus). Closer exchanges could even result in awards to UK military leaders.For example, Former CDS Nick Houghton received an an honorary Panglima Gagah Angkatan Tentera (PGAT) or Knight Grand Commander of the Order of Military Service from Malaysia back in 2015. So you do get some personal awards through engagement with your counterparts.

This talk about engagement with Asia-Pacific officials also extends to British academics and journalist. Yours truly has seen so many of these two groups believe 1) Britain no longer needs to look East or care about the Asia-Pacific; 2) call it the archaic ‘Far East’; 3) spew anti-Asian or specifically anti-Chinese rants (Prof you know who, I’m talking about you) 4) or say the UK should mainly or only focus on the NATO front. Some of these have designated titles like reporter for Asian issues or Lecturer/Senior Lecturer/Assistant or full Professor for East Asian studies. Yet they have never stepped a foot in this geographical region and only claim that China or North Korea or Vietnam is not democratic or capitalistic enough to receive UK/Western support. Hardly any of them have been to security dialogues like the Shangri-la Dialogue but are happy to spew unsubstantiated comments which do affect UK policy. If British youths can backpack through the region and post photos of themselves (sometimes topless, haha) on mountain tops, surely journalists and academics can visit the region (well clothed). Such visits of course may not change their pro-Europe or narrow-minded or anti-Asian views, but at least it is a start of stronger understanding. Plus, if they at least try for the Shangri-la Dialogue, who wouldn’t want to be in such a nice hotel?

A bridge not too far

Yes, it is not a such a great if there are more engagement by British government, military and media officials with the Asia-Pacific region. It may be a bridge quite far to increase UK military deployments to the Asia-Pacific (again please do not say Far East) given how UK financial and willpower appears at present. There is a slight glimmer of hope in the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) that will be, hopefully, released in a few week’s time. The recent NSCR did mention the importance of the wider Asia-Pacific to UK National Security, but it is quite doubtful whether the MOD-led MDP will back this up. Beyond all this, I again emphasise UK willpower needs to increase in order to meet and sustain any increase in UK defence and security policy toward East Asia. Gavin Williamson has supposedly started a battle with Philip Hammond over the size of the defence budget. I have mentioned the Treasury is a constantly target whenever defence commentators see the size of HM Armed Forces as shrinking. The feud actually should be beyond financial terms: They should fight over whether the UK should stay in its backyard or see that wider areas like the Asia-Pacific region. Only if there’s a strong willpower will any of the above suggestions actually happen and we will actually see the Union Jack flying high to maintain security in the Asia-Pacific.

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Why the UK must have defence engagement with that region Part 1: Gavin Williamson in the Asia-Pacific

While many British people were either complaining about the weather or worrying about Brexit, Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson and his delegation were abroad seven hours ahead of GMT plus 1 time. Namely, Williamson was in Malaysia, then Brunei and finally in Singapore for the annual Shangri-la Dialogue, or as known in social media circles as #SLD18.

First stop, Malaysia and Brunei

These twitter posts thisone and this from the UK High Commissioner to Malaysia showed that he first met with the new Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu. Naturally, no one knows what Williamson and Sabu exactly discussed, but Malaysia is a Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) member, and a key importer of British defence equipment for decades. For example, Malaysia has bought Starstreak missiles and may be aiming for the Eurofighter Typhoon, once it gets its finances in order.

Williamson then headed further eat to Brunei, where most Brits love for its exotic nature and mountains, but in the case of British defence policy, there has been a British Army base there, more specifically a Gurkha regiment. Jokes or no jokes, Williamson watched how jungle training is conducted and received a garland from them.

To Singapore for the Shangri-la Dialogue or SLD18

Photo op with the Gurkhas over, William head back west to Singapore, where SLD18 was occurring. In true British defence media fashion, his appearance was only announced late only on the first of June. Information on Williamson’s activity came from other media, specifically Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), which noted he was hosted to a breakfast meeting with his FPDA counterparts by Singapore’s defence minister Ng. (Piece of trivia: Williamson is the youngest and second most recent FPDA minister.) Next, Williamson met up with the Prime Minister of Singapore, most probably discussing about general UK-Singapore topics. What was more surprising was later that day, Williamson and Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng signed a Defence Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding (DCMOU), promising greater cooperation in defence areas such as cyber-security and information warfare, as well exchanging knowledge over counter-terrorism and counter-improvised explosive device (IEDs). For a country far away from Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific, one which has reduced its presence since the handover of Hong Kong, this MOU might be a definitive re-construction of a UK-Singapore and UK-Southeast Asian relationship.

Williamson’s major day was on Sunday 3rd of June, the last day of SL18 where he on a panel with French Minister for the Armed Force Parly and Singapore’s Ng.. His speech was pretty traditional by British political sound-bites. What I mean is that he talked about the so-called ruled-based order which nation-states are suppose to follow but increasingly have not. Williamson, as have other British politicians, drew up the example of the Salisbury/Skirpal attack as an example. But that is hardly one, since many nation-states, not just Russia and China, have not played the ruled-based order but for their own interests. Anyway, Williamson continued stating much of UK contributions of Asia Pacific story, such as the deployment of HMS Sutherland, HMS Albion and later this year HMS Argyll. Those have been mentioned many times in social and mainstream media. Similarly, Williamson (possibly proudly) announced that British Army personnel would deploy to Japan later this year for bilateral exercises. This again isn’t new; it has been announced before. Williamson then joked that the UK need to send more ships to the Asia-Pacific, since France sent five warships to the region in 2017 and in 2018 This joke is probably Williamson’s highlight at SLD18, you may search the rest of twitter for the summary or comments about his speech in this thread.

Update: IISS has uploaded his speech here (You have to download it to read or watch the full video of all three speakers.)

What’s all this fuss about Williamson’s Southeast Asian trip?

I know Williamson has been mocked by journalist for comments about Russia but seriously, twitter users should stop tweeting about that and tweet more about his time in Southeast Asia. This especially is because this is 1) his first major trip to this region and 2) his  inaugural trip to the region’s most prominent conference (in 2017, no UK politician attended the SLD; only CDS Air Chief Marshal Peach did since it was after the 2017 General Election.) In fact, besides Williamson, HMS Sutherland was docked there, visited by the Commander Devonport Flotilla Flotilla. VCDS General Sir Gordon Messenger was also at the conference, speaking on new technologies and the future of conflict, therefore presenting a truly prominent British presence at the SLD. But, wait, some defence commentators (I shall not name who), will say all this is just ‘spreading the defence jam thin’. They say, oh, sending these warships and these troops are tokens and won’t have much of an impact. The UK should concentrate on the Euro-Atlantic area, where NATO is a core military alliance, or the Middle East, or Africa and leave the distant Far East/Asia-Pacific to the US of A, Trump or whoever is in the White House. They drum the beat, the UK has no interest in the Asia-Pacific, the world will be divided, let’s focus on home…

I sincerely disagree. This has been tried before in history, during World War Two. Then the UK prioritised its forces on its home front. That may be a sound decision, yet it resulted in Imperial Japan defeating British and Commonwealth forces in the Far East. Even closer to British shores, it initially suffered defeated in North Africa before defeated the Nazis. Ok, one might still argue that at present with the worry over Brexit, rising threats from closer state actors like Russia and extreme-Islamist terrorism may suggest the focus should be at home. For example, Sir Humphrey in fact wrote that the region pose little military threat to the UK.

Yet, that assessment was back in 2012 and six years later, China has reclaimed land in that disputed area, massing long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and air-defense missiles. The PRC has also harassing fishing ships around those waters. Closer to home, China has also possibly meddled with UK security through ownership of the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Then There is also the North Korean crisis. Yes, North Korea is a huge distance away from the UK, it is Trump’s fault for adding fuel to the fire, yet the DPRK has launched a cyber attack an a chemical attack that actually killed someone. In the wider scope, even before the Brexit referendum, East Asia was a highly important economic powerhouse and a more crucial trading bloc for the UK due to its stellar economic growth and technological advancement. Now, whatever type of Brexit approach the UK takes, the East Asian/Asia-Pacific region will definitely continue to be a critical area for UK economic security and survival (just check the World Bank trade statistics for example). If the defence of the realm is the first priority of government, then protecting trade routes in the Asia-Pacific and preserving economic security there is not a cheap token, but a core duty. It is certain not ‘spreading the jam thin’ but preventing any pest or new pest from eating your beloved crops.

This is the end of Part I. Part II will discuss the range of plausible, not possible UK responses to ensure security in the Asia-Pacific.