As Boris Johnson rattles his sabre and peddles unsettling fantasies, a Chinese minister refers to Britain’s track record: bringing chaos and humanitarian disaster
On Thursday there was a joint meeting between British and Australian foreign and defence ministers, who discussed closer defence and trade co-operation as the UK prepares to leave the EU.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary, said that Britain was stepping up its commitment to the Asia-Pacific region following its dispatch of Typhoon aircraft to Japan and South Korea last year and plans to sail two new ‘vast, colossal’ aircraft carriers through contested Asian waters at a time of rising tensions between China and the US.
Jamie Smyth in Melbourne (FT) reports that Mr Johnson repeated this claim later in Sydney: “One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area,”
HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to come into service in 2020 but HMS Prince of Wales is not due until 2023. They are designed to support F-35 fighter jets, which the UK will not have until 2020, according to the National Audit Office.
Belief in selected tenets of the rules-based international system
Mr Johnson said the aim was to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system – freely ignored by UK<USA and allies when bombing civilians in several regions – and the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital to world trade.
Will Boris be foreign secretary long enough to implement this – or will he be long gone?
Euan Graham, an analyst at the Lowy Institute think-tank, said Mr Johnson’s commitment to Asian waters was unlikely to take effect until the early 2020s when the carriers would be ready to sail to the region.
The (‘blond British wombat’) foreign secretary told The Australian newspaper that legal certainty in the South China Sea was important and that Britain had a role to play in the region that would be welcomed by many: “People want the involvement of a country that sticks up for the rules-based international system, that is prepared to deploy its military in the area”.
On Friday CNN reports that Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said “certain outside countries are determined to stir up trouble” in the region. Whatever banners these countries or officials claim to uphold, and whatever excuses they claim to have, their track record of bringing chaos and humanitarian disasters through their so-called moral interventions in other parts of the world is enough to make nations and peoples in the region maintain high vigilance.”
Is Britain – after military withdrawal in the 1970s from bases east of Suez – really intending to reopen a naval support facility in Bahrain, create a permanent army presence in Oman and establish new defence staff centres in Dubai and Singapore? RUSI adviser Raffaello Pantucci and MP Tom Tugendhat, writing in the Financial Times, appear to see military force as an asset in trade negotiations:
“(T)he UK has been underperforming in an Asian context, and needs to increase capacity, especially on the defence side . . . It’s been supercharged post-Brexit. The whole idea is of the UK as a global free trader. You need to engage with the new centres of economic power,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Unhealthy and unethical alliances
In February this year Britain and Saudi Arabia, a major purchaser of British-made weapons and military hardware were reported to have lobbied the United Nations to tone down criticism of Bahrain for the use of torture by its security forces. Saudi Arabia, sent troops to quell dissent in Bahrain during the Arab spring.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, declared in a speech in Bahrain this month: “Britain is back east of Suez.”
Though he had accused Saudi Arabia of abusing Islam and acting as a puppeteer in proxy wars throughout the Middle East, the following day he declared that policy formulated in 1969 of disengagement East of Suez was a mistake: “and in so far as we are now capable, and we are capable of a lot, we want to reverse that policy at least in this sense: that we recognise the strong historical attachment between Britain and the Gulf, and more importantly, we underscore the growing relevance and importance of that relationship in today’s uncertain and volatile world”.
Will Britain even be able to defend its own coastline?
“It comes down to capabilities.The UK is now down to 19 surface combatant [ships] and the concept of a carrier group would tie up most of the deployable navy,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security programme at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. General Sir Richard Barrons, the former head of Britain’s Joint Forces Command, warned recently that Britain’s military had small quantities of highly expensive equipment — such as its two new aircraft carriers — which it could not afford to “use fully, damage or lose” west of Suez or elsewhere.
Is the name of the game still gun-boat diplomacy?
In a Boxing Day article Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat wryly commented that there are more admirals dining on the deck of HMS Victory on Trafalgar Day than we have ships at sea and claimed, “With investment in the armed forces, the UK can shape a future based on the rule of law and free trade. After all, it has been done before”.
Or building a better future in Britain?
“Spend your money feeding the English, providing jobs for your young people and on a better quality of life for the British, because we are not a threat to anyone.”
Anne-Marie O’Reilly has sent an emessage pointing out that 27% of children in the UK are growing up in poor families, 20,000 disabled people will lose support for the basics in life when the Independent Living Fund closes and thirteen times more people are visiting foodbanks than did five years ago.
Despite this Britain’s military spending was set at £38 billion in 2014 – a figure confirmed by the Financial Times.
She itemised Budget proposals:
- £570 million of public money for upgrading the UK’s nuclear weapons
- £700 million to subsidise arms exports,
- £2.5 billion for new fighter jets,
- £6.2 billion for new aircraft carriers
As CAAT’s Outreach Co-ordinator she stresses that it’s time to shift priorities. It is hoped that a Global Day of Action on Military Spending on Monday 14th April will turn the tide on military spending and readers are asked to share these powerful spending comparisons on Twitter and Facebook.
Global Day of Action on Military Spending event in India 2013