UK Defense Minister Gavin Williamson haS been widely quoted as declaring that the U.K. 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 since the withdrawal of most of its military forces more than half a century ago. Such a move would have unintended consequences for the region—and for Britain itself—many of them negative.
The idea has been stimulated in part by Brexit – the imminent across the board withdrawal of the U.K. from the European Union. The possible effects of Brexit on Britain’s future are an increasingly divisive issue for U.K. citizens. Many despair. Some members of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government want to use the separation to launch Britain on a path to a successful and independent future. It is clear that at least initially, the U.K. will be weakened. They reckon that to “survive and thrive” after the traumatic separation, the nation must boost its economic relations with Asia. To ensure the latter it must be able to protect the sea lanes and its investments there. Because it cannot do this alone, it must enhance its military relations with the U.S. The U.S. needs help in its quest to constrain China’s behavior in the South China Sea. So the move could be a quid pro quo. Perhaps as a harbinger of this calculus, then British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the Royal Navy would be sending HMS Queen Elizabeth and its under-construction sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, into the South China Sea in 2020.
That is an explanation of the initiative from the British perspective.
But China would likely see it in a negative light. Indeed it would likely be perceived as a declaration by one of its former colonial masters to become part of the current US strategic cabal to confront, constrain and contain it. The U.S. has officially made clear that it considers China a potential enemy and China must presume that it is constructing and planning for worst case scenarios — including war– and actively integrating its allies into its strategy. 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 U.S.—as further evidence of this Western response to its rise. The dialectic is simple and stark. America wants to remain the leading strategic power in Asia and China wants to replace it.
China would also likely see the move as compounding a strategic existential threat. China has built a new submarine base at Yulin on Hainan in the South China Sea for its nuclear powered, nuclear armed submarines. These are its deterrent to a first nuclear strike against it. To be effective, they need to hide in the South China Sea. The presence of a major British naval and air base and concomitant British patrols and intelligence probes –in addition to those of the U.S.—could inhibit their ability to hide, thus diminishing its deterrent and exposing China to defeat in a nuclear exchange. Already, much to China’s angst and chagrin, a British warship has challenged China’s claimed baselines around the Paracel Islands.
To China it must seem that just as it is regaining its dignity from a ‘century of humiliation’, it is now faced with a possible 21st century high tech repeat of history. Indeed, these developments may be seen by China as evidence of a grand coalition of Western civilization plotting against it –an Armaggedon–like clash of civilizations as predicted by Huntington. If so, it will oppose this gambit with all it can muster. This is the strategic context that Britain needs to consider in proceeding with building a new military base in Southeast Asia.
An initial concern for Britain should be ‘is it worth it’ economically and politically? The answer is that in its lonely and difficult transitional period, probably not. But if the U.S. considers a British base as part of its grand strategy vis a vis China then perhaps it will support its construction both economically and politically. After all, as an ally the U.S. would presumably have access to the base for its own assets as well.
Perhaps a more important consideration for Britain is how would such a move be viewed politically in its former colonial sphere of influence? Singapore already hosts a British naval repair facility and Brunei hosts a battalion of British soldiers—some 500-800 strong. Moreover Britain is a member of the Five Powers Defense Arrangements that includes Commonwealth members Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand and which undertakes military exercises in the region. But a new base would be different in kind, scale and geopolitical significance.
Moreover, it is not only China that would likely view such a development as a resurgence of neocolonialism—both ideationally and strategically. It would likely be opposed by nationalists in both the host and the region. At the least it would raise strong suspicions among neighbors as to the host’s long term intentions towards both themselves and China. More specifically, the base and the host would immediately become a target for China in a conflict and the host would have difficult political and economic relations with China for the foreseeable future.
Singapore might calculate that it is worth it to host a British base because having it is a form of insurance against bullying by Malaysia and Indonesia as well as a hedge in case the U.S. – which has ‘rotational’ military privileges there– pulls back from the region. But Singapore would then have to live with the long-term consequences as China’s power and influence grow in the region- – and beyond. As for Brunei, it is difficult to imagine a strict Islamic society welcoming a large contingent of foreign military troops. To do so could eventually undermine the very legitimacy of the Sultan and his government.
The added stress on ASEAN could be fatal. It is already riven by pro-China and pro-U.S. factions and increasing pressure to choose between the two powers. A new base in the region for a US ally could be the strategic straw that breaks the back of ASEAN unity. It would also accelerate the arms race in the region as China expands outward and the U.S.—aided by its allies—including Britain – rushes to upgrade their friends and allies’ military capabilities.
In sum a new British base in Southeast Asia could have significant negative unintended consequences for all concerned except perhaps for the U.S.
A version of this piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/asia/article/2181540/new-british-naval-base-southeast-asia-could-stoke#comments