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.”