The Defence Secretary’s desire to flex Britain’s muscle is somewhat overshadowed by the country’s waning economic standing.
Sending an aircraft carrier into disputed waters of the China Seas in a display of “hard power”, a part of this country’s military strategy in the post-Brexit world, may seem to resonate with imperial hubris and echoes of Pax Britannica.
And the language used by defence secretary Gavin Williamson in announcing the deployment was indeed full of reference to past challenges, fortitude and triumphs evoking the Raj and the “Great Game”, the Second World War, Churchill and the “darkest hours”, and “east of Suez”.
However, the decision to invest a huge chunk of the defence budget on the two very large and very expensive carriers, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales was taken with much heated, sometimes bitter, debate, not least between the three services long before David Cameron called the referendum on leaving the European Union.
Having built the ships, one needs to use them. And sending them to the China Seas where Beijing is expanding militarily, claiming ownership of islands and extra-territorial waters and building a chain of military bases is justified to assert freedom of navigation.
The announcement about the voyage of Queen Elizabeth was one of a series of initiatives by Williamson in a wide-ranging speech which included plans to buy off-the-shelf drones to create a “swarm” fleet to be used alongside the F-35 Stealth Fighters on board the aircraft carriers. The Ministry of Defence, he also said, will procure two cargo vessels and convert them into combat roles, basing them to the east and west of Suez, one in the Indian and Pacific oceans, the other in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
The theme was one of global Britain and the country’s military. “Defence will be pivotal in reinforcing Britain’s role as an outward looking nation….In an era of ‘Great Power’ competition we cannot be satisfied with simply protecting our backyard…” the defence secretary declared listing the overseas commitments which have been undertaken ranging from sending a battle group to Estonia, to manning bases in Oman, Bahrain and Singapore.
It’s worth noting that Williamson’s speech “Defence In Global Britain” at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in Whitehall came just hours before the official launch of a report “Global Britain: A Blueprint for the 21st Century” with a foreword by Boris Johnson a few hundred yards away in Portcullis House.
The report, produced by Bob Seeley, a Tory MP in the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and James Rogers, of the right-of-centre think-tank, the Henry Jackson Society calls for the Department for International Development (DfID) to be closed down as a ministry, calls for a major cut in Britain’s overseas aid budget with the definition of aid to include peacekeeping duties by the military and for its focus to be on promoting the UK’s economic and political interests.
It may not be remembered that Johnson, too, had dipped his toe into the China Seas. Two years ago, when he was foreign secretary, Johnson had suggested that the Queen Elizabeth, when commissioned, should be used to carry out “freedom of navigation” missions in the Indo-Pacific.
Johnson says the conclusions of the report by Seeley and Rogers are “hard to disagree with”. The Brexit champion is, of course, continuing with his manoeuvres to succeed Theresa May and need to stay in the public eye. Williamson, who voted Remain in the referendum, denies having such ambition but his supporters see him as a party leader in the long-term.
Williamson has made a few missteps in his ministerial career such as the widely publicised instructions to the Russians to “shut up and go away”. But he has managed to do what his predecessors in the MoD failed to do: get an increase in the defence budget, a total of £ 1.8m.
The defence secretary’s proposed reforms in the department, including promoting a generation of progressive commanders have been generally well received in the military while his launch of a campaign to counter sexual violence against women in conflict zones received praise from humanitarian agencies.
Williamson has also managed to avoid collateral damage in the Brexit fallout, sometimes with strategic foreign trips abroad. Professor Michael Clarke, a senior fellow at RUSI, points out “Gavin Williamson has so far emerged as one of the very few ministers whose reputation has not been badly damaged by the Brexit crisis, it has actually largely remained OK.” That is not something, one can say, perhaps, about Boris.
Clarke, an eminent defence analyst who is politically liberal and a firm remainer, went on to say: “Williamson seems to want to make his mark. He sees defence as an extension of foreign policy. The question, though, is whether he will be able to get the support of the rest of the government, his fellow ministers, in this forward policy.
“Leaving aside the wrongs and rights of Brexit, there is a need for Britain to engage with the rest of the world. There is nothing wrong with the Queen Elizabeth being sent to the Pacific in this kind of a deployment, after all we have already got forces back east of Suez, and there is a very good case for rebuilding old alliances and forging new ones.”
It is indeed the case that British forces have been based outside Europe for a while with a return to east of Suez taking place largely un-noticed. But is the deployment of the Queen Elizabeth a particularly dangerous step?
To put it in context, this country has fought wars of intervention in the last two decades in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria with varying degrees of justification and success. Iraq, of course, was the most unjustified, an invasion based on falsehood which devastated a country and created deep divisions back home.
Deploying the aircraft carrier to the Pacific is not an act of war and Britain will not be the only country carrying out such a deployment. The growth of Chinese military power has led to alarm among neighbours in the region and beyond. Japan, India, the US, and Australia have formed the Quadrilateral Security group which has held large scale naval exercises. Beijing has claimed that was a hostile act and described foreign warships asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Seas as threat to its sovereignty.
It has not, however, taken military action to prevent ships from entering the waters. They have been on what are recognised international waters and the Chinese government would not be justified in doing so.
Chinese military expansion has been accompanied by commercial hegemony which, it is claimed by critics, promotes “debt-trap diplomacy” providing cheap finance and then extracting advantage when debtor countries have difficulties paying back. The most notorious example of this so far is Sri Lanka ceding a port, Hambantota, in return for the waiver of $1bn in loans. A number of states, including Malaysia, Nepal and Myanmar have recently pulled out of Chinese-financed programmes because of apprehension of being similarly sucked-in.
China also has aspirations for Europe to be the final destination for the land route of the Belt and Road. But last year 27 out of 28 European Union ambassadors in Beijing (Hungary the exception) signed off a report saying the project “runs counter to the European Union’s agenda for liberalising trade and pushes the balance of power in favour of subsidised Chinese companies”.
The British ambassador was one of the signatories. But in December 2016 Philip Hammond, on a visit to Beijing, said, “I was privileged earlier this year to represent the UK at the first Belt and Road forum and one of the things we will discuss is the opportunity for closer collaboration in delivering the ambitions of the Belt and Road programme.”
Hammond subsequently announced the launch of a £750m private fund, supported by the British government, which will work with the Belt and Road initiative. It will be led by David Cameron, the prime minister who Gavin Williamson once served as parliamentary private secretary.
Therein lies the irony: the Queen Elizabeth may be sent with Stealth Fighters to challenge Chinese military aggression, but Brexit Britain, facing an uncertain economic future, cannot afford to refuse Chinese deals and take a similar strong stance against dubious practices underpinning expanding economic hegemony.