'Permanent military presence' in Indo-Pacific an exaggerated illusion for London
Published: Sep 07, 2021 08:10 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

The UK may wish to prove it is charging on the path to redeem its old imperial glory through the "magnificent" HMS Queen Elizabeth's tour in Indo-Pacific region. But it has not yet made any big waves so far. On Monday, when the UK "showed off" the aircraft carrier to Japan's defense chief at a naval base near Tokyo, Reuters hyped it up, saying it marks "the start of a permanent military presence in a region." 

Reuters did not specify what "permanent military presence" means. The article only slightly touched upon that "after the Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group returns, two warships will continue the British presence in the region." It refers to two patrol vessels, which kick started their sail on Tuesday and are scheduled to spend the next five years or more in the Indo-Pacific. 

When HMS Queen Elizabeth departed the UK in May, the country made quite a splash, hoping to display that UK's Royal Navy is revitalized. Now, it seems eager to further prove it by announcing a permanent military presence in Indo-Pacific. But when UK's slogans are carried out, they are often greatly shrunk and diluted. 

"Permanent military presence" is purely an exaggeration. "Take the two patrol vessels, whose combat capabilities are low. They don't even have missiles," Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military expert, told the Global Times. Taking either military budget or technological support into consideration, London is not capable to permanently deploying any of its two aircraft carriers overseas. It won't find a long-term foothold either, Wei said. The most the UK can do is participating in joint military drills or trainings in the region or sending lower level warships there. 

The post-Brexit UK has a "Global Britain" dream and has been trying hard to deliver its ambitions. It views the Indo-Pacific as an economic center and the center of major power game. This is why London is determined to validate its existence and role there, Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times. 

But how to support such moves halfway around the world away from its own soil? London has been pooling more money away from other sectors to military spending, sacrificing social and economic development. 

In November 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a £16.5 billion ( $22 billion) surge in defense budget in the next four year. This is the largest rise since the end of the Cold War. The announcement was made at a time when COVID-19 epidemic wreaked havoc on the country's public finances. "It comes weeks after ministers resisted spending extra money to fund free school meals in the holidays," The Guardian reported. 

The UK believes that only by boosting armed forces can it better safeguard its national interests. "This is a gamble, as the judgment is taking a backward step from the reality," Cui said. 

London is trapped in its nostalgia, leading the country's back to the era of gunboat diplomacy. But those days are gone. The UK no longer has the strength to pursue such policies. Will its economy recover from the epidemic? Will Britain improve its economic model after Brexit? The questions are left unanswered. To flex its military muscle, it is robbing Peter to pay Paul. It will learn a bitter lesson sooner or later on how risky such a tactic is. 

London should also sober up to the overrated US leadership. The primary reason of Washington's call for more NATO members' deployment in Asia is that the US strength is declining. It is placing hope on allies to safeguard US military hegemony in the region as Washington cannot do it alone. No strong NATO power, apart from the UK, is enthusiastic to respond to Washington. Those who might want to come have no strength at all. This is the awkwardness faced by Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy, according to Cui. 

China is not what it was 100 years ago when its doors could be forced open by British gunboats. If the UK dares to make any provocative moves in the South China Sea today, China's countermeasures will make it learn the consequences of acting rashly. It is high time for the UK to wake up from colonial days and be cautious on China's doorsteps.