Brexit Britain, the high seas and low farce

Boris Johnson mulls sending a naval squadron to square off against China. A potential act of breathtaking—and dangerous—stupidity

February 03, 2021
Photo: Neil Watkin / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Neil Watkin / Alamy Stock Photo

The Johnson government’s planned dispatch later this year of an aircraft carrier group to the Indian and Pacific Oceans and—potentially—to confront China in the South China Sea, is a tragicomedy in an almost literal sense. Underneath January’s trumpeting about the achievement of initial operating capability by Britain's largest ever warship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, were audible whispers that its first deployment would likely take it through the South China Sea.

The tragic aspect is stark. Such a move would simultaneously carry dire implications for British domestic security, the British economy, and Britain’s place in the world. The folly of it could eventually overshadow even Britain’s collaboration in the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

And yet at the same time the potential move has a comic frivolity—it is an almost entirely theatrical exercise, without serious British strategic purpose or rationale. As even a dedicated Atlanticist like Philip Stephens of the Financial Timeswrote recently, “Falling further into the arms of Washington does not amount to a post-Brexit foreign policy.”

This dangerous drift is very much of a piece with two already-observable consequences of Brexit. The loss of an anchor in Europe has entangled Britain still further with the strategic goals of the US, without any possibility of influencing or modifying those goals; and the Johnson government’s frantic attempt to show that Brexit has once again made Britain a global power has set off a rather silly and embarrassing tendency to empty geopolitical theatrics. One gushing report in the security trade press describes Britain as moving “out of the shadows and into the limelight as a more active and determined global power.” If the author had said “footlights” instead of “limelight” it would have been closer to the truth.

In the first place, this will not in fact be a British force. Because Britain cannot afford enough planes, half of the Queen Elizabeth’s airpower will be from the US Marine Corps. Because the Royal Navy cannot provide enough escort vessels, most of the squadron’s defensive firepower will come from a US missile destroyer. The title of an article in the US Naval Institute News is entirely frank on the subject: “Royal Navy Intends HMS Queen Elizabeth to be Integrated into US Carrier Operations.” By the same token, this squadron will contribute very little real additional strength to US forces in the region. It will embitter China against Britain and destroy Britain’s potential role as a broker between China and the US, without in any way deterring Beijing from anything it plans to do.

This British squadron is in fact the naval equivalent of the British army’s contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where—despite the courage of British soldiers on the ground—we failed badly and had to be bailed out by the Americans. Embroilment in a naval war with China—of which there is increasing talk in both Washington and Beijing—would be an infinitely more dangerous undertaking. Amidst these clouds of British imperial nostalgia, have we forgotten the last time Britain dispatched capital ships to the South China Sea with inadequate escorts and unclear strategic purpose? Shouldn’t the fact that the Queen Elizabeth’s sister ship is named HMS Prince of Wales make us pause and think a bit? The sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse by the Japanese in the in December 1941, and the subsequent loss of the Battle of the Java Sea, ended—not without honour—the Royal Navy’s history in the Far East. Let the dead rest in peace.

Nor of course is Britain in any sense whatsoever an “Indo-Pacific power.” The US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are because they live there. Even France has Réunion and Tahiti. Britain has nothing to defend. Our last inhabited territory, Diego Garcia, was rented to the Americans for a base in 1968, and its inhabitants deported. Like it or not, strategically speaking Britain is now simply an island off the northwest coast of the European continent.

The deadly serious issue behind British theatrics is America’s moves towards confrontation with China. Now there are good British reasons to push back against certain Chinese policies, to condemn crimes like the persecution of the Uighurs, and to safeguard Britain against aspects of Chinese influence, especially through cyber defences. The approach that is building up in Washington, however, risks repeating some of the worst US mistakes of the Cold War: the demonisation of the enemy (what is happening in Xinjiang is very bad, but it is not “genocide”); the inflation of the adversary’s strength (Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean is in fact minimal); the exaggeration of the adversary’s ambitions (Chinese strategy in the Middle East has to date been notably cautious and hesitant); the framing of every local dispute as part of a global struggle between good and evil; and the adoption of distasteful allies with dangerous agendas of their own.

Most worrying of all is the way in which Britain is being pulled by the US towards a “strategic partnership” with India (in the words of the British government). This is dangerous geopolitics because of India’s territorial dispute with China in the Himalayas. This is an issue with absolutely no clear rights and wrongs, and on which the US has been officially neutral. Now, however, there is a risk that the US will commit itself to support India’s claims (as Biden has just done with regard to Japanese claims in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, on which the US once supported the Chinese legal position). If China is eventually provoked into attacking India, and India loses, then the US will face a choice between remaining aloof and suffering deep humiliation, or going to war with China—with Britain dragged along behind.

For Britain, the biggest threat is however domestic. We are now joining the US in rhetoric about “common democratic values” with India. In fact, Narendra Modi’s government is openly devoted to lightly-veiled authoritarianism, Hindu chauvinism, persecution of Muslims and escalation of the crisis in Kashmir. The difference between Britain and America is that Britain includes a large and growing Pakistani Muslim population, of whom the largest group come from Kashmir. A British alliance with India therefore risks re-igniting domestic terrorism and tearing British society apart.

Britain was a close ally of the US in the Cold War, but still refused to send troops to fight in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war. Today, our most useful contribution to the alliance would be twofold: we can play a key role in safeguarding the security and stability of Europe (especially in the Mediterranean and Balkans), since the US in future will have less and less ability and will to do so; and we can help to keep open lines of communication and co-operation with China. The Soviet adversary eventually collapsed. For obvious economic, demographic and historical reasons, China by contrast is going to be for all foreseeable time a superpower with a central role in the world economy. As Martin Wolf has shrewdly written in the FT, there is no hope of “containing” the People’s Republic as the West did the USSR. Short of nuclear war, nothing that Britain or the US can do will change that. A semi-serious, semi-British naval “strike force” will certainly not do so.