East of Suez: A British Strategy for the Asian Century

Young Fabian, Ash Dharmasingham writes on British strategy in Asia. Over the next few weeks we will be publishing his research into this important issue. This week's topic is the introduction, setting out the themes that will be explored in the series. Follow our blog to read next week's piece on "The Case for a British Strategy in Asia".

On Saturday, 22 October 2016, four visiting fighter aircraft and a refueling aircraft landed at Misawa Air Base, Japan for a bilateral military exercise. It was common for Japan to take part in such exercises with the US but this particular exercise was different. It was not the Americans who had landed at Misawa, but the British. It was the first-ever joint air force exercise that Japan had ever hosted with a country other than the United States (RAF, 2016). Britain was back in Asia. Two months later in December 2016, Britain announced the setting up of three British Military Staffs across the world including Singapore.

 While there was much talk about the US’s ‘pivot to Asia’, little attention has been given to Britain’s own pivot to the region in recent years. A lot has certainly been written on US strategy vis-a-vis Asia. Hugh White, for instance, suggests that the US should share power with China in Asia while others such as Jeffrey Bader and Kurt Campbell generally argue that the US should focus more on Asia and engage China while checking their assertiveness (Campbell, 2016); (Bader, 2012); (White, 2013). What has been written on British strategy vis-a-vis Asia is limited and mostly focuses on specific aspects. For example, Rana Mitter writing in the South China Morning Post argues that Britain is missing an Asia Policy but focuses on Britain’s post-Brexit immigration policy (Mitter, 2017). John Bew proposes that post-Brexit Britain should strengthen the special relationship with the US, look to Asia and engage more with international security and politics. While he introduces the question of whether Britain should be involved in the political and security issues of the region, he does not answer the question himself (Bew, 2016-b). Kerry Brown although focusing specifically on Sino-British relations comes close to providing some sort of strategy but even his 2015 piece is concentrated on the economic aspects and largely ignores the security implications of China’s rise (Brown, 2016).

 This series will, therefore, attempt to fill this gap and propose a comprehensive British Strategy for Asia during what is increasingly known as the ‘Asian Century’ (the 21st century). British strategy in Asia should have two objectives. The first should be to engage with Asia and increase Britain’s influence in the region noting that Britain's prosperity, security and global influence will be increasingly tied to the region. The second should be to defend the International Liberal Order (ILO) as part of wider British grand strategy and ensure that efforts to secure the first objective are in line with this.

 ‘Grand strategy’ is in the opinion of the author, an over-arching long-term strategy of a nation that identifies and prioritises a state’s key objectives and identifies the ways and means needed to secure them. Strategy is the link between ends and means i.e. the ways. It is more specific than grand strategy and in this case, it is focused on a particular region but it could in other contexts be focused on a theme such as economic or military strategy. Policies in the view of the author, differ from strategies in that they form the building blocks of strategies. For instance, as part of a British China strategy, it is advocated that Britain lessens Chinese involvement in the nation’s critical national infrastructure (CNI).

 The first section will outline the case for a British strategy in Asia which it will be argued is increasingly important to both British interests and the ILO. The ILO, its benefits and the consequent need to defend it will also be explained. The second section on China is given by far the most attention as China is presently the most important state in the region and its rise will have potentially significant implications for Britain and the ILO. These implications will be evaluated before economic engagement in the form internationalising China’s currency, the Renminbi (RMB), will be looked at. It will be suggested however that Britain has not demonstrated enough firmness in its policies towards China and will need to take measures to stop isolating allies, protect its CNI and help preserve the maritime order. Although the issue of Hong Kong democracy is important to Britain who needs to provide the moral support necessary, discussion of the subject has been omitted in order to focus more on economic engagement and Chinese threats to the maritime order where Britain has a greater capacity to make a difference. The third section is on Japan, where the case for strengthening security ties will be made before assessing the various potential areas of cooperation such as transnational issues, research and development (R&D) and capacity building. The fourth section focuses on India where Anglo-Indian relations, India’s rise, India’s potential as a counterbalance to China and opportunities for Anglo-Indian political, security and economic cooperation will be analysed. The last section on Malaysia and Singapore is the smallest as they are not as important to Britain as the previous three states but important, nonetheless. Here, it will be argued that Britain’s commitment to the Five Powers Defence Arrangement (FPDA), should be strengthened. 


Ash Dharmasingham is a Young Fabians member.

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