Britain’s planned naval base in Southeast Asia seen as ‘muscle-flexing’ against China

  • Building a facility in the region, potentially in Singapore or Brunei, is likely to further complicate the geostrategic landscape, analysts warn
  • They say it could also cast a shadow over Beijing’s relations with its neighbours and worsen tensions with London – though ‘Washington will be pleased’
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 11:27pm

Britain’s plan to build a new military base in Southeast Asia is likely to further complicate the strategic landscape in a region already fraught with maritime disputes and geopolitical rivalry between Beijing and Washington, Chinese analysts warn.

The plan was unveiled by British defence secretary Gavin Williamson during an interview with The Sunday Telegraph this week, with possible sites including Singapore and Brunei.

If it goes ahead, the move could cast a shadow over China’s relations with its Asian neighbours and would risk further inflaming tensions between Beijing and London after a British warship sailed close to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, according to the experts.

“It is clearly a muscle-flexing gesture targeting China and shows closer engagement of external powers in the South China Sea disputes,” said Xu Liping, a professor at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Williamson said Britain would open two new military bases in “a couple of years”, including one in the Caribbean, saying it would help the country to return as a “true global player” after Brexit.

“This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the second world war, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play,” he was quoted as saying.

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The move marks a policy shift from Britain’s withdrawal from military bases in Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf in the 1960s.

Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, also said the plan was more evidence of Britain and other key American allies increasingly aligning themselves with US President Donald Trump’s hardline approach on China.

“It is a complementary step to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy and Washington will be pleased,” Ni said, referring to Trump’s plan to bolster its security and economic engagement with the region at a time when bilateral ties are at a historical low.

Beijing has long viewed Washington’s increasing military activity in the disputed South China Sea as a threat to regional stability and has expressed concern over the Indo-Pacific strategy, which it sees as part of a broader US effort to thwart China’s ambitions of becoming a global superpower.

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Xu believed Washington, which was less interested in playing a global leadership role under Trump’s “America first” policy, was behind London’s plan for a military base in the region.

“Britain in particular has been increasingly active in the South China Sea” at a time when the US may have concerns about directly confronting China in the region, he said.

Sino-British ties, which were described as being in a “golden era” a few years ago, have cooled recently as Britain began to challenge China’s expansive claims to the strategic waterway, as the US has done.

Beijing accused Britain of engaging in “provocation” after a British warship passed near the Paracel Islands claimed by China in a “freedom of navigation” operation in late August.

The British military base plan could be good news for American allies and partners in the region that have been concerned about Washington’s reluctance to take a leadership role to challenge Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea disputes, such as Japan, Australia and Vietnam, according to analysts.

But for China, it could signal severe challenges ahead in dealing with a delicate regional security balance in the region, with the risk of growing tensions and even partial confrontation, Ni warned.

Xu also said that although the British plan was still at an early stage, it would test China’s relations with Singapore and Brunei, both of which are former British colonies.

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Beijing has tried hard to woo Brunei, a rival claimant in the South China Sea disputes, through economic cooperation via its “Belt and Road Initiative”. President Xi Jinping visited Brunei in November to shore up ties, which saw bilateral trade soar in the past months.

Meanwhile, China’s relations with Singapore, which is not a claimant in the long-standing maritime disputes, were tested two years ago when Beijing accused the city state of siding with the US on the South China Sea.

During a regional gathering in November, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that Southeast Asian nations had been caught in the rivalry between Beijing and Washington and may be forced to choose sides.

Chinese experts also questioned the feasibility of the naval base plan.

Despite its ambition to restore its past glory as a global nation, Ni said it remained to be seen if Britain could afford such plans for more overseas bases when it had struggled with budget shortfalls for years to maintain a strong military deterrence.

Although it saw a modest spending boost in 2018, the British military has shrunk by roughly half since the end of the cold war.

The move was also criticised in Britain, including by Labour MP Luke Pollard, who challenged Williamson’s plan on Twitter. “Where is the budget for this? Why is our national military strategy being made up as we go along? Which budget will be cut to pay for these expansions?” he asked.