HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest and most powerful ship ever built for the Royal Navy. The Navy’s website officially describes the carrier as “impressive”. Following some of its multinational aircraft carrier strike groups, it entered the South China Sea this week.
I am surprised that your trip does not attract more publicity. Some, of course, don’t like it. Chinese government today warned, “Action must never attempt to destabilize regional peace … The Chinese navy will take the necessary steps to counter such behavior. Beijing is particularly irritated by “the latest military collaboration between the United Kingdom and Japan”. We may need to “counter” Chinese behavior if the regime attempts to conjure up a maritime “incident” to make Britain appear weak, aggressive, or (worse) both.
Some in the West are not happy either. On Tuesday, under the headline “Britain is ‘more useful’ closer to home than in Asia, says US defense chief,” the Financial Times reported that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, had used a speech in Singapore to highlight “American concerns that the incursions of European allies into the Indo-Pacific could weaken the defenses closest to us. It sounded pretty serious.
However, James Crabtree – himself a former FT correspondent – presided over the event at which Austin spoke. Confused by the way his old diary covered the story, he tweeted that it was “hard to see Austin’s comments genuinely aimed at questioning the UK’s role in Asia.” He quoted the exact words of Mr Austin, who described the interoperability between the UK and the US in Asia as “a really exciting endeavor”. In a sentence Boris Johnson himself could have used, Austin had said that “the UK and the US are global nations with global interests.” After Crabtree’s protest, FT changed their account.
The psychological problems of the Financial Times shouldn’t hold us back too long. For 20 years before Brexit, its columnists repeatedly shouted: “The future is Asia!” But after Boris implemented the decision of the British people to leave the European Union, they attacked his foreign policy with blind fury. “World Britain? Pah! “This is the line of the FT. No independent defense, foreign and security policy can be correct, thinks the pink newspaper: we must return to the EU or pretend we never left. Boris decided, however, that the FT columnists were right the first time, Asia is the future, so it is very important that it is dominated by our friends, not our enemies.
Throughout the airline’s history, which began as a flash in the eye at the turn of the 20th century, reasonable objections have been raised. Is this the right way to spend the meager British defense money? Is she too vulnerable? Will your kit really work? What is the use of such a container in the face of 21st century technology?
These questions were never fully answered, but now that we have the aircraft carrier, it is interesting to see it deployed with some strategic daring. In March, the government released its Comprehensive Defense and Security Review, “Global Britain in the Age of Competition,” the first of its kind to address today’s real security challenges. . He was, among other things, trying to change the Cameron-Osborne “golden age” illusion that Chinese money could be allowed into Britain without political or security consequences. He had to chart a new course.
In May, HMS Queen Elizabeth set out on her maiden voyage, eastbound. His “lenses” help to strengthen the will of ministers. As one senior military official put it: “He crossed the Straits of Malacca with all government departments much better aligned than when he left Portsmouth two months ago. Even the Foreign Ministry, always so cautious about anything that might upset China, has become more assertive about the human rights dimension of history. By paying more attention to the suffering of Uyghurs and to democracy in Hong Kong, he has awakened some dormant consciences, perhaps including his own.
The purpose of the Carrier Strike Group trip is of course not to subjugate the Middle Empire or threaten to attack China or even to make provocative gestures like the one Vladimir Putin likes to make towards Britain by violating the territorial waters.
It’s about setting a milestone, expanding possibilities and strengthening alliances. “Confident, not confrontational” is the motto of the government. There is power in democratic countries when they act in unison and terrible weakness, which China would like to exploit, when they do not. Indeed, the whole of China’s massive Belt and Road Global Initiative, now in its ninth year, can be seen as a comprehensive attempt to divide and rule. Late, the Western allies retreat.
The Integrated Review stated, for the first time in such a document, that China presents “a systemic challenge … to our security, prosperity and values, and those of our allies and partners.” The visit to the Indo-Pacific of the Aircraft Carrier Strike Group makes visible our resistance to this steel challenge. HMS Queen Elizabeth will visit 40 countries and make a strong impression. When you dock in Tokyo, it will be a sight to think about. The commander of the US Seventh Fleet will also climb aboard.
The existing alliances are galvanized. Four members of the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance (United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) are from the Pacific. The fifth is us. The Five Power Defense Agreements, which celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, are concluded between four Eastern powers (Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore) and Great Britain. All five are Commonwealth countries.
There is a similar direction in bilateral negotiations: our greatest contribution today is relations with India, the emerging great power that China has pressured. During its voyage, the carrier strike group conducted naval exercises with India in the Bay of Bengal. Our interest in the Indo-Pacific region is not a cranky, new, post-Brexit joke. It’s a long time ago. No one wants to use the old imperial phrase “East of Suez”, but that’s where a lot of the action takes place.
Moreover, it is not true, despite fears wrongly attributed by the Financial Times to the US Secretary of Defense, that the British Indo-Pacific “tilt” will cause us to neglect our own continent. Britain is the “umbrella nation” that unites the Scandinavian and Baltic states, two of which, Sweden and Finland, are outside NATO, in a joint expeditionary force designed to protect against Russia. This development appeals to Americans. Overall, we now spend 2.3% of GDP on defense, well above the threshold agreed by NATO.
It would be very premature to say that the Government now has a coherent and fully operational defense and security strategy. The interests of cities and businesses continue to press against security imperatives. Earlier this month, Nexperia purchased Newport Wafer Fab, a semiconductor plant. The security issue wasn’t raised beforehand, yet the Newport plant is exactly the kind of “targeted investment” China needs for its global cyber domination plans. Now the national security adviser has been asked to take a closer look. There will be more such conflicts.
Even at the top, ambiguity is still detected. Boris Johnson never seems happy to criticize China, preferring to stress how much his trade matters to us. But facts on the ground, at sea and in the air, suggest his government is finally putting long-term security ahead of short-term gains.
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