More than four decades after a sweeping British military withdrawal from bases “east of Suez”, the UK is scaling up its defence engagement in the Gulf and Asia in what analysts regard as a recognition of the region’s growing global importance.
Britain is reopening a naval support facility in Bahrain, creating a permanent army presence in Oman and establishing new defence staff centres in Dubai and Singapore.
RAF Typhoon jets trained with Japanese military aircraft this year; the first time Japan’s postwar air force has hosted an exercise with a nation other than the US.
And when Britain’s two new aircraft carriers are operational in a few years’ time, they will be “seen in the Pacific”, in an effort to keep sea lanes open, a senior diplomat said recently.
Little wonder then, that Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson declared in a speech in Bahrain this month: “Britain is back east of Suez.”
This growing engagement reflects a desire in Britain’s governing Conservative party to think of the UK’s defence role in global rather than in European terms, according to Tim Huxley, executive director of IISS-Asia, the Singapore-based regional arm of the security thinktank.
“Some people write that off as a wish for a return to empire,” Mr Huxley said. “I think that’s wrong. Britain’s economic and strategic interests are global.”
Britain’s withdrawal from Southeast Asia in the 1970s, dismaying Singapore’s then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at a time when the city-state’s own armed forces were embryonic, marked a shift in the region towards homegrown defences.
Singapore, which now has the best-equipped military in Southeast Asia, tripled its defence spending in response to Britain’s exit and signed up to the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, a security tie-up with the UK, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.
The UK’s revitalised military engagement in recent months reflects London’s diplomatic emphasis on the region; UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s first trade mission as premier was to India. On a visit to Bahrain in December, Mrs May pledged to deepen security co-operation with Gulf countries.
“In some ways it’s a reflection that the UK has been underperforming in an Asian context, and needs to increase capacity, especially on the defence side,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“It’s about the concept that power is shifting east and if you want to take advantage of that — you have to be taken seriously there.”
The British build-up is not overtly directed at China, a power that the UK government has worked hard to court in an effort to win Chinese investment. Instead, analysts say, Britain has sought to demonstrate its enduring military capacity on a world stage.
“It’s been supercharged post-Brexit,” Mr Pantucci said. “The whole idea of the UK as a global free trader. You need to engage with the new centres of economic power — and you do have to engage in a strategic way with a defence and security component.”
There is a gap, however, between Britain’s rhetoric and a military capability that has been diminished by financial constraints. The UK’s sole surviving army garrison in Asia — Brunei — is funded not by the British taxpayer but by that country’s Sultan.
The shortcomings of Britain’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan — including a lack of planning and shortages of vital equipment — have raised doubts about its effectiveness. The UK retains a small contingent of troops in Afghanistan, deployed in non-combat roles.
The former head of the UK’s Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons, warned recently that Britain’s military had small quantities of highly expensive equipment — such as its two new aircraft carriers — which it could not afford to “use fully, damage or lose”.
“It comes down to capabilities. The UK is now down to 19 surface combatant [ships] and the concept of a carrier group would tie up most of the deployable navy,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“If there’s a revitalised Russian threat or a crisis in the Middle East, that will take precedence over Asia.”
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