A new British naval base in Southeast Asia could stoke resentment, split Asean and put the UK in China’s cross hairs
- Mark J. Valencia says Britain’s ambition to project post-Brexit global influence and join the US in containing China may have consequences London isn’t prepared for
UK Foreign Minister Jeffrey Hunt and Defence Minister Gavin Williamson have been quoted as saying Britain will establish a permanent naval base in Southeast Asia – perhaps in Singapore or Brunei. This would be the first new British military base in the region in more than half a century.
The idea has been stimulated in part by Brexit. At least initially, the UK will be weakened by withdrawal from the European Union. Some members of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government reckon that, to thrive after the separation, the nation must boost economic relations with Asia. To ensure this, it must protect sea lanes and investments there. Because Britain cannot do this alone, it must enhance military relations with the United States, which needs help to constrain Beijing in the South China Sea.
But China is likely to see this as a move by one of its former colonial masters to become part of the US strategic cabal to confront and constrain it. Indeed, China also sees the new US Indo-Pacific Strategy and the revival of the Quad – a potential loose security coordination mechanism between India, Japan, Australia and the US – as evidence of this strategy.
Beijing is also likely to view the move as compounding a strategic existential threat. China has built a new submarine base at Yulin, on Hainan Island in the South China Sea for its nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines. These are its deterrent to a nuclear first strike against it. They need to hide in the South China Sea to be effective.
The presence of a major British base and patrols mean more intelligence probes that could inhibit their ability to hide, thus removing its deterrent capability and exposing China to defeat in a nuclear exchange. Already, much to China’s angst, a British warship has challenged China’s claimed baselines around the Paracel Islands.
China could see this as evidence of a grand coalition of Western civilisation plotting against it, and will oppose this gambit fiercely. This is the strategic context that Britain needs to consider in building a new military base in Southeast Asia.
An initial concern should be whether it is worth it, both economically and politically. The answer is, in its difficult transitional period, probably not. But if the US considers this commitment part of its grand strategy vis-à-vis China, then perhaps, it will support Britain’s base both economically and politically.
But how would such a move be viewed in the UK’s former colonial sphere of influence? Singapore already hosts a British naval repair facility and Brunei hosts a battalion of British soldiers. Moreover, Britain is a member of the Five Powers Defence Arrangements that also includes Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, and which undertakes military exercises in the region. However, a new base would be different proposition altogether.
Moreover, it is not only China that would probably view this as a resurgence of neocolonialism. Nationalists in both the host nation and the region would no doubt raise strong opposition, amid suspicion among neighbours as to the host’s long-term intentions towards both them and China. The base would immediately become a target for China in any conflict and the host would face difficult political and economic relations with China for the foreseeable future.
Of course, Singapore might consider it worthwhile to host a British base as a form of insurance against bullying by Malaysia and Indonesia and a hedge in case the US pulls back from the region. But Singapore would then have to live with the long-term consequences as China’s power and influence grow. As for Brunei, it is difficult to imagine a strict Islamic society welcoming a large contingent of foreign troops.
The added stress on Asean could be fatal. It is already split between pro-China and pro-US factions and increasing pressure to choose between the two. A new base in the region for a US ally could break the back of Asean unity. It would also accelerate the arms race in the region as China expands and the US rushes to upgrade allies’ military capabilities.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China