East of Suez

BY DANIEL KAWCZYNSKI MP

When this Government was elected in December, it had one mission above all: to deliver Brexit and make a reality of ‘Global Britain’.

Events have intervened, as they often do, and over the next few years Rishi Sunak will have to find ways of paying back some of the vast sums spent combating Covid-19.

But our original mandate remains, and the Chancellor must not respond to the current crisis with short-sighted defence cuts at the very moment when we should be expanding the UK’s international profile.

There are few more visible examples of what Britain has to offer our allies, and the world, than our military footprint. Sovereign bases such as those at Gibraltar, Cyprus, Ascension Island, and the British Indian Ocean Territory give us and our NATO partners global reach.

History has also bequeathed us deep and long-standing alliances with regional partners, the fruits of which can be seen today. British interests in the Gulf are anchored by the United Kingdom Naval Support Facility in Bahrain, until recently known by the historic name HMS Jufair, and the Royal Navy also has access to the facilities at the Omani port of Duqm.

Further east, the British Defence Singapore Support Unit at Sembawang provides a point of resupply for British and allied vessels, and is so heavily utilised that according to the Royal Navy it is “busier than Portsmouth Naval Base”!

This footprint is not just a residual legacy of Empire. The Government has recognised that such forward positions will be central to defending British interests, and the rules-based international order, in the 21st Century. In the Gulf, for example, the Royal Navy regularly helps to protect civilian shipping and ensure that vital trade lanes through the Strait of Hormuz remain open. A permanent presence is also a powerful reassurance to our regional partners, and a potent deterrent to potential aggressors.

In the Far East, meanwhile, the UK is signatory to the Five Powers Defence Agreement, under which we commit to immediately consulting with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore in the event of a threat to either of the latter countries.

Such hard power cannot be disentangled from the soft power that modern Britain aspires to wield. The ability to project force in the Gulf and the Asia-Pacific lends our negotiators real credibility and weight, both when striking deals with regional partners and when facing up to possible challengers to the international order.

Prior to the pandemic, ministers recognised the importance of expanding on this existing footprint. China’s ambitions mean that the South China Sea has joined the Strait of Hormuz as a possible flashpoint, and the impact on global trade could be disastrous. Reports that a Royal Navy vessel had engaged in a so-called ‘freedom of navigation operation’ (FONOP) – the first conducted by a nation other than the United States in decades – in the area were much to be welcomed.

A truly ambitious Government would continue this work. Our Armed Forces should be aiming to take part in joint military exercises being conducted by regional allies, such as Pacific Bond, both as a visible show of support and to improve operational readiness.

Sir Philip Jones, the previous First Sea Lord, also raised the prospect of permanently stationing a Royal Navy warship in the Asia-Pacific. This could be done at an expanded facility in Singapore, or by negotiating access to the American naval base at Yokosuka in Japan. As in the Gulf, this would reassure our allies and allow a much swifter British response to any trouble.

My fear is that the Government, faced once again with a difficult fiscal situation, may choose once again to narrow the scope of our Armed Forces in order to concentrate spending, relapsing into the view that such far-flung outposts and operations are ‘nice-to-haves’.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We live in a smaller and increasingly connected world, and the ability to project power in both the Gulf and the Asia-Pacific regions is only going to become more important, not less. Far from imperial nostalgia, a return to a strong presence ‘East of Suez’ reflects a cold and clear-eyed assessment of modern Britain’s strategic interests.

Comforting hopes for the ‘end of history’ and an exclusively diplomatic global order belong to the past. Both Moscow and Beijing are demonstrating their commitment to defend their perceived spheres of interest – and in Russia’s case, directly seize territory – with hard military power. The United Kingdom has a duty, as a prosperous, democratic nation and a NATO partner, to shoulder its share of the burden for defending the post-War order.

But this cannot be done on the fly, or bolted on to a five-year review once the storm clouds have burst. If we want to be ready for the challenges of the decades ahead then we must invest in our defence capabilities now.

The Chancellor has pulled out all the financial stops to protect this country from Covid-19. He must do the same for our Armed Forces. Global Britain expects nothing less.

Daniel Kawczynski MP is the Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury and Atcham.