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.
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.