The Indo-Pacific is vital for the UK’s prosperity, but that does not make it the military’s main effort. The military’s craving for relevance in the theatre risks a strategic blunder.
Just over a year after the publication of the Integrated Review, Whitehall has embarked upon another round of strategising, intended to reflect the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is anticipated to place a heavier emphasis on the Indo-Pacific, given the diminution of Russian power and the region’s economic trajectory. This has led the Ministry of Defence – which had been implementing a Eurocentric interpretation of the original Integrated Review – to explore military options that cater to this shift in focus. It would be a grave error, however, to prioritise this theatre militarily.
To be clear, the Indo-Pacific is critical to the UK’s economic future. It is a region with huge economic potential, with emerging centres of industry and innovation. From an economic point of view, the UK should be aiming to secure access to these markets and to work diplomatically to advance UK trade throughout the region. Given that China has hegemonic designs in the region, driving growing China–US tensions, the UK should build diplomatic alliances there to safeguard its supply chains.
China’s strategic investments, not just in the Indo-Pacific but throughout Africa, the Middle East and Europe, are also a security threat. From an intelligence point of view – as outlined by Director of GCHQ Sir Jeremy Fleming, speaking at RUSI this week – understanding how China is building influence and wielding power in areas critical to the UK’s interest must become a major line of effort across the intelligence community. Countering Chinese influence where it threatens UK interests is similarly a global challenge.
None of these factors make a large UK defence presence in the region justified or useful. The disproportionate cost of projecting and sustaining forces at such reach ensures a small footprint relative to either the threat from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), or the capabilities of important partners in theatre, notably the US, Japan and Australia. Moreover, the UK lacks the mass, logistics or capabilities to offer credible security guarantees in warfighting scenarios in the region.
It would be a grave error to prioritise the Indo-Pacific militarily
If anything, bending the force out of shape to service new missions in the Indo-Pacific risks the worst of both worlds: failing to deliver on commitments in Europe while being unable to force generate anything militarily useful for Indo-Pacific partners. As the example of Israel shows, credibility in the primary theatre can be used to drive defence partnerships in the Indo-Pacific without a large military presence. Showing that the UK military is capable and active, and that its equipment is operationally tested, allows periodic and light-touch military engagement to advance the UK’s prosperity agenda in the region. Lacking significant forces in the Indo-Pacific does not prevent industrial partnerships with Japan, South Korea and Australia on the armaments of the future – as demonstrated by Tempest and AUKUS – or the pursuit of defence sales to India, Vietnam and further afield.
It should also be noted here that the UK presently does not meet its commitments to NATO. It promises NATO a Division, but could not project one within an operationally relevant timeframe. Years of cuts to logistics and stockpiles, and the failure to deliver on equipment programmes, has left 3 UK Division a hollow proposition. The basis for military credibility in the Indo-Pacific should be delivering on promises closer to home.
But even if the UK’s defence capabilities were not in significant need of regeneration to meet existing commitments, the UK’s military interests in an Indo-Pacific conflagration are not necessarily in the theatre itself. With a PLA base already in Djibouti, another being contemplated in West Africa, and Europe strategically dependent upon gas from Qatar, the UK could play a critical role in securing sea lanes of communication in these nearer regions for supply chains to Europe and the US. Were Iran, Russia and China to forge a closer partnership, deterring Iranian entry into a China–US conflict would be critical to global – not just UK – security.
If the Royal Navy is better employed securing the Gulf, the British Army’s role in an Indo-Pacific conflagration is likely best located in Europe. Russia is likely to remain a threat in Europe even if it is considerably weaker for some years than it was in 2021. It is also – because of international sanctions – going to be drastically more dependent upon China. If China enters a conflict, pressure from Beijing for Russia to destabilise or otherwise fix US forces in Europe may be hard for Moscow to resist. The US is clear that Europe in these circumstances would become an economy of force operation. Holding the European theatre, therefore, would both underscore the UK’s commitments to core allies and directly assist the US in the Indo-Pacific.
There is a line of argument that says that with German and Polish investments in defence the European theatre can look after itself. Perhaps. These states have made announcements, but have not yet delivered capability. But even with these commitments, European NATO looks fairly hollow if US airpower and enablers are redeployed East. The UK, therefore, has a long-term role as part of the alliance if it can target its investments to fill these key gaps – and Eastern European partners trust it to move quickly.
The desperate striving for direct Indo-Pacific relevance within Defence risks having a distorting effect on procurement, readiness and force design. Suppose Defence does pivot for this update to the Integrated Review. In 2024 there will be an election. By 2025 there will be another Strategic Defence and Security Review. Political attention could shift twice in so many years. Given that defence programmes take 7–15 years to deliver, continuous changes of direction are liable to be disruptive and expensive, and to cost the Ministry capabilities that would be useful in any theatre. It is critical that the department stays the course and proposes itself as a supporting rather than leading instrument of the state in the Indo-Pacific theatre.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare