Britain’s naval expansion in the Indo-Pacific will anger China, and accomplish little else
Emanuele Scimia says the UK’s recent expansion to the East, including establishing a naval base in Bahrain and naval stopovers with Beijing’s regional rivals, can’t hide the fact that the UK cannot project power in China’s backyard by itself
Britain is busy building up its own “string of pearls” in the Indo-Pacific region. It is more limited in scale and scope than that of China, but has enough substance to anger Beijing, which is bolstering its naval footprint in the China seas and the Indian Ocean, and is sensitive to any initiative that could challenge its strategic interests in this vast area. Not least, if it comes from a non-regional actor.
The UK opened a new permanent naval base at Mina Salman port, Bahrain, last week. This support facility will become the Royal Navy’s hub in the Middle East, but also a “launch pad” for operations from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific Rim.
The base is the first British naval structure east of Suez since 1971. It will accommodate the UK navy’s biggest warships, including its future aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, and will also service the navies of allies and partners. As the two new carriers will not be able to dock at Mina Salman (its surrounding waters are too shallow), any maintenance will be done at the naval logistic centre in Duqm, Oman.
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the Bahrain outpost will boost Britain’s global standing. London is negotiating Brexit, its exit from the European Union, and aims to expand the presence of its naval fleet in all maritime domains. That means its navy will operate in the Indo-Pacific to foster a rules-based regional order, protect one of the world’s busiest shipping routes and “encourage” allies and friends to buy future British Type 26 and 31 frigates.
But the underlying focus of the UK’s deployment in the Indian Ocean and Pacific waters is to deal with China’s rise. “China is pushing for superpower status, restructuring the People’s Liberation Army, pushing towards the Indian Ocean and employing ‘sharp power’ including military, media and economic pressure against any challenger,” Williamson said in a speech last month.
The British government has several times criticised Beijing’s development of military facilities on reefs, rocks and shoals in the South China Sea. In this respect, it has time and again showed support for US-style freedom of navigation operations in the region against China’s island-building and naval activities.
The Royal Navy’s ongoing missions east of the Arabian Peninsula must be seen in this context. HMS Sutherland, a Type 23 anti-submarine-warfare frigate, is currently deployed in the western Pacific. Further, British troops and units have integrated into the French “Jeanne d’Arc” naval task force, which is heading to the South Pacific, for the second year in a row. After a port call in India last week, this convoy fleet will make stopovers in Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam and Singapore, all countries questioning Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea in one way or another, and will conduct exercises with regional navies and US naval forces.
Admiral Philip Jones, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, outlined Britain’s Indo-Pacific naval strategy last September. This is centred on the deployment of a prospective aircraft-carrier strike group in this area in the 2020s. London plans to use the new base in Bahrain and the logistics facility at Duqm to support operations across the Indian Ocean. British naval activities in the South China Sea will hinge on Singapore, where the UK has berthing rights and a defence staff office. The navy’s future Type 31 frigates could be stationed both in Bahrain and Singapore, and used for patrol missions in the Gulf of Aden and the China seas.
The problem is that the future Royal Navy, as modern as it looks, will not have the capabilities to project power in the Indo-Pacific arena autonomously. Britain will have to lean on other actors – the United States, Japan, India, Australia and France – to assert its role in the region. But such an outcome would probably be the nail in the coffin of its much-trumpeted “golden age” in relations with China.
Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and foreign affairs analyst