Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Soft power, not global ambitions, better suits ‘little Britain’

  • The British display of naval power or the lack thereof, in the Black Sea and South China Sea, has been an embarrassment as US defence chief Lloyd Austin gently advises it to stay closer to home

I recently started reading Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, initially out of guilt, because the novels had been sitting on my bookshelves for too many years, but now I am totally engrossed by the series.

One reason may well be that I was a British colonial subject, in Hong Kong. Among many achievements, Scott has created a portrait of the all-too-rare British expat, either male or female, who was nevertheless recognisable – a decent and honourable person in the face of a corrosive imperial power that poisons and deforms all human relations with a subject people. Most Brits I have met are not like that, but I have met a few in my lifetime whom I find admirable, and it’s like I am coming across them again in Scott’s pages.

Scott was no apologist for the British Raj or British imperialism in general. He knew, I read from stories about his travels in Asia as a younger man, that it was always going to end, either merely badly or catastrophically. In light of the break-up into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the horrible human tolls it cost, “catastrophic” doesn’t seem an exaggeration.

Even so, Britain may have, in the judgment of some historians, managed decolonisation and national decline relatively better than most. Maybe that’s why Brits such a former governor Chris Patten are still so obsessed with Hong Kong today, because for any number of reasons, the city has been a rare example of decolonisation that ended better than most had anticipated. Some would say, “until now!”. I disagree, but that’s for another column.

Is China sending warnings to Taiwan and Britain with latest military drills?

While everyone loves success and domination, managing decline well requires an entirely different order of intelligence, experience and wisdom. What I have always thought people need is not a Machiavelli or a Sun Tzu to teach them how to succeed and prevail, but how to deal with failure or decline with grace and dignity; a soft landing, as they say. Certainly, we see nothing of that level of intelligence and wisdom in the contemporary United States. That deficiency, and not the so-called Thucydides trap, is what will likely cause a war with China.

But just as History with a capital H was set to treat post-imperial Britain kindly, its contemporary leaders look set to turn its hitherto likely verdict around. The mandarins in Whitehall used to think they could play wise Greece to imperial Rome with the US. Today, they seem even more lost at sea, quite literally, than their American cousins.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at the Fullerton Lecture in Singapore on July 27. Photo: Reuters

This week, the US defence chief effectively told the Brits not to embarrass themselves by displaying their military might, or rather the lack thereof, in the South China Sea.

During his visit to Singapore, Lloyd Austin said Britain would be “more helpful” staying closer to home than in Asia, given its limited military assets. Despite professing excitement at the “historic” deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the new British aircraft carrier, to the Indo-Pacific region, he said: “If for example, we focus a bit more here [in Asia], are there areas that the UK can be more helpful in other parts of the world?”

Ouch, that must hurt!

What Austin diplomatically passed over but was reported by the British media is some rather grim statistics about the state of the British navy.

Britain’s post-Brexit global strategy has been, so far, both confusing and embarrassing, not to say dangerous for a small country

Half of Britain’s warships are currently out of action because they are undergoing maintenance or upgrades. Four out of the remaining 12 Type-23 frigates are in dock, with the remaining eight considered “operationally available”. One of the older Type-23s, HMS Monmouth, left service last month, reducing the number of frigates from 13 to 12.

Meanwhile, it emerged last week that five of the navy’s six Type-45 destroyers are also being fixed or undergoing maintenance, leaving just nine out of a total of 18 Royal Navy escort ships available for operations around the world. Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that HMS Defender, an armed destroyer, was practically chased out of disputed waters off Crimea, in the Black Sea, last month by Russian naval forces.

It also means that the British navy just scraped by putting together a threadbare flotilla to accompany the HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea this week. This is not the navy that once ruled the seas which Melbourne and Palmerston sent to Qing China to demand reparations for destroyed opium.

Britain’s post-Brexit global strategy has been, so far, both confusing and embarrassing, not to say dangerous for a small country that can no longer afford costly conflicts, with Russia and especially China.

There is nothing wrong with being “Little Britain”. David Walliams and Matt Lucas are two of my favourite British comedians. Their eponymous hilarious show is authentic soft power.