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.