East of Suez
Britain’s Pivot to Asia?

The UK is ramping up its military presence in Asia in a way not seen in two generations. The Financial Times reports:

Britain is reopening a naval support facility in Bahrain, creating a permanent army presence in Oman and establishing new defence staff centres in Dubai and Singapore.

RAF Typhoon jets trained with Japanese military aircraft this year; the first time Japan’s postwar air force has hosted an exercise with a nation other than the US.

And when Britain’s two new aircraft carriers are operational in a few years’ time, they will be “seen in the Pacific”, in an effort to keep sea lanes open, a senior diplomat said recently.

Little wonder then, that Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, declared in a speech in Bahrain this month: “Britain is back east of Suez.”

In 2014 we wrote about the plans for the Royal Navy facility in Bahrain, which has now opened. Since then, much has changed. Most notably, because of Brexit, Britain’s need for new friends in new parts of the world (or for strengthening old friendships) has gone from luxury to necessity. Viewed in this light, a mini-pivot to Asia is a smart move for the UK.

However, the British establishment continues to be torn between those who see defense as a piggy bank to be raided as needed for more important concerns (such as the NHS or balancing the budget) and those who see it as a vital part of national strategy. The long-term trend lines in British defense spending support the more pessimistic view. British naval strength, for example, has been cut so deeply over the past two generations that this mini-pivot will bring but a shadow of what it could have brought previously, not to mention what US engagement in the Pacific brings.

But a few recent developments, and stories like this one, suggest that there are still some in Westminster who get how intimately power, trade, and prosperity are connected. And given the warm reception from the Asian governments mentioned in the article, there’s reason to hope for a bit of a positive feedback loop here. Let’s hope so. The Western system of international alliances can use all the help it can get these days.

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