When I first heard the news that Britain was deploying its new aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, I assumed I was having a “senior moment” – one of those episodes where a retired person mixes up dates, names and other key facts. Had I got confused with the 1960s?
But no, there it was in current print and electronic media: HMS Queen Elizabeth, costing over HK$32 billion to build and squillions more to operate, was about to leave Portsmouth Harbour for its first extensive overseas voyage, to the Indian and Pacific oceans. Feeling slightly shaken, I thought it best to check my memory against the historical record. It was in 1967 that the then Labour government concluded that for a medium-sized power such as the UK had become, it was unrealistic to maintain – the economy simply could not support – an extensive military presence “East of Suez”. The large Singapore naval base was closed in 1971 and British priorities thereafter were centred on Europe and membership of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).
Looking closely, we can see that the new vessel, although paid for by British taxpayers, is not entirely an all-British affair. Of the 1600 crew, some 250 (over 15 per cent) are American marines, who have already brought a popcorn machine on board. Moreover, of the 18 world-class F35-B aircraft on the ship, the US will operate 10, a clear majority, and the British themselves only eight.
Deployment by any navy of an aircraft carrier is an awesome projection of power because of its ability to launch its strike force to hit targets long distances away. Once recovered, refuelled and rearmed they can be launched again. The UK and China each have two of these powerful vessels, the United States has 11.
Paradoxically aircraft carriers are also very vulnerable because they make such attractive targets for opposing forces. So a single vessel is never deployed by itself, it is always part of a group of destroyers and other ships that provide protection and support. The British flotilla on this occasion includes both Dutch and American destroyers. The PR spin for this situation is to emphasise the coordination between allies. An alternative less kind version might be that the Royal Navy has insufficient vessels to support the Queen Elizabeth by itself so far from home waters.
Mention of home waters brings to mind the most recent occasion when British navy vessels were deployed in earnest. This was to confront French fishing vessels near Jersey, an island in the English Channel belonging to the UK but close to the French coast. Such disputes are by no means rare in British waters and the North Atlantic generally. There have been similar squabbles with Spanish fishing vessels. Older hands will remember the famous “Cod Wars” with Iceland ending in the mid-1970s. Respective fishing rights remain one of the many unresolved issues following Britain’s 2016 vote to quit the European Union.
What is the right role for British forces in modern times? An obvious one is to protect clear British Interests – the recovery of the Falkland Islands following the Argentine invasion of 1982 is one example. Another might be to support international efforts to maintain order – antipiracy operations in the Horn of Africa spring to mind.
A recent security, defence and foreign policy review by the British government reached two seemingly contradictory conclusions with respect to China: on the one hand China was seen as a “systemic competitor”, on the other hand the target was for “deeper trade links and more Chinese investment”. The second of these makes a lot of sense to the neutral observer because Britain is looking for new business opportunities in the aftermath of Brexit. But the logic of the first is difficult to grasp. In what sense is China a threat to Britain? A look at any world map will show the two countries are very far apart. China has no territorial ambitions in Europe and surely by now post imperial Britain has none in Asia.
But joining in “freedom of navigation” exercises in this part of the world does fit another country’s strategic objective, that of the United States to constrain the development of modern China. The usual justification offered in support of these exercises by (mostly) American vessels is to protect trade routes. This argument has always struck me as disingenuous. China imports large amounts of food to feed its people and large quantities of energy and raw materials to support its economy. To pay for these essential imports it must export similar quantities of goods. So safeguarding these trade routes while desirable for many countries is for China an existential issue. America’s interest is marginal at best, and Britain’s hard to detect.
But this is not the first example in recent times of Britain following the United States in Asia. The disastrous invasion of Iraq built on lies about weapons of mass destruction; the equally painful occupation of Afghanistan (has nobody in the Ministry of Defence read Rudyard Kipling?); are recent examples. And now we have the Queen Elizabeth about to sail through the South China Sea with US marines, US planes and a US destroyer, all as an example of British power and influence? The rationale is hard to follow, more as if Dominic Raab has been imbibing the Trump/Pompeo Kool-Aid.
Brexit was supposed to be about “taking back control” from Brussels. Nobody mentioned that it would then be handed over to Washington.