The much-awaited release of Britain’s updated Integrated Review (IR2023) – a “refresh” since the 2021 iteration (IR2021) – has many in the Euro-Atlantic and many in the Indo-Pacific now
trying to assess UK intent and capability in the region.
The paper does go some way to addressing concerns that UK domestic politics would pull the ground from underneath “the Tilt” before it had even begun. The region is described as “Inextricably linked” with the security of the Euro-Atlantic, though this strategic logic is compelling, the operational follow-through bears some scrutiny. So what is the UK security posture in the Indo-Pacific and how can it meet the theatre-resourcing demands made by current geopolitical realities and current capacity?
First, we should come out of the gate by saying that there is a superior strategic logic to the idea of linkage between the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific as part of a broader construct the “global commons and rules-based international order”. In many ways, this framework promotes the idea that the tworegions – and Russian and Chinese efforts to destabilize and dominate those regions – are part of a broader geopolitical struggle. The common thread of Russian and Chinese authoritarian systems also reaffirms this conceptualization as does their growing
political and military alignment and intention “to remake [the order] in their image” (IR2023). This framework is likewise found in the 2021 US National Security Strategy and the 2022 Japanese National Security Strategy.
At slight variance to this compelling logic, is the debate about resourcing and operational concerns in Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Europe. In both the US and UK, there are those experts who believe that the UK’s focus should be Europe and that attention towards the
Indo-Pacific is a “distraction”. Some of these voices are even official, as for example, that of US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin stated in July 2021: “If, for example, we focus a bit more here [in Asia], are there areas that the UK can be more helpful in other parts of the world”. This view has been a constant refrain by Labour Shadow defence secretary John Healey who stated that “Alliances with like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific are important. We can contribute strongly with technology, capability, diplomacy, to the Indo-Pacific, but there needs to be a realism about military commitments into the Indo-Pacific. Our armed forces are ill-served by leaders who pretend that Britain can do everything, everywhere.” In all fairness, the IR2021 or IR2023 both make clear that theUK’s prioritization will be of the
Euro-Atlantic – the “region of primary and overriding importance to UK interests – where the build of…efforts would be focused through NATO”. Furthermore, it should be noted that Secretary of Defence Austin’s view does not preclude the sort of diplomatic, economic, technological, and security cooperation that the UK is already doing in the Indo-Pacific region.
After all, the Indo-Pacific Strategy of 2021, calls for an “engaged Europe” as one of its strategic means, and states that the US will “bring our Indo-Pacific and European partners in novel ways, including through the AUKUS partnership.” We believe that at its heart, this is a disconnect between two very different theatres and two very different types of threat, posing very different operational challenges. In Europe, the threat is largely about annexation of national territory by a revanchist Russia and the possibility of a
land war in Ukraine that could spill over into NATO-member territory. No one believes that it is about the future architecture of Europe. In contrast, it is more about the regional maritime system and its importance to the global system in the Indo-Pacific. Admiral John Aquilino,
Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command in October 2021 made this clear when he visited the UK and called the Indo-Pacific the “defining security landscape of the 21st Century”. Noting the centrality of the region’s maritime trade flow “every day, half of the entire world’s container
cargo and 70% of ship-borne energy supply flows through this area. The most important message I can send…is how vital the Indo-Pacific is to the future prosperity and security of Europe and global cooperation.”
Is the UK therefore well set to play a role in an integrated deterrence vis a vis China?
We think that the jury is still out on this, particularly in the Indo-Pacific though the Tilt appears to have been achieved and now the region is to become a ‘permanent pillar’ of UK foreign policy. With the exception of AUKUS and GCAP, which are new since IR2021, much of the Tilt has been achieved through diplomatic and technical/economic agreements rather than through defence or security means. There have been modest increases in the UK military presence in the region, such as the two naval patrol vessels, and arguably the AUKUS/GCAP agreements are the
headline deliverables that will see decades of engagement in the region. IR2023 emphasisesthe UK approach in the region to be via deepening relationships with allies and partners or soft power. The UK has widened its security and defence network across the Indo-Pacific over the past decade and appears to be trying to deepen this network now. Arguably we cannot draw too much from IR2023 until we see the Defence Command Paper – reportedly not due release until June 2023.
If deterring China is the goal what should the UK be doing to help achieve this? Realistically the UK is not about to deploy vast numbers of troops, ships or aircraft to the region especially whilst the war in Ukraine persists. But the UK could use its footprint across the Indo-Pacific to better support a coordinated deterrence plan with other allies or partners in the region. France and the UK have already agreed a plan to coordinate carrier group deployments which could be a signpost for the integrating effect the UK brings. With the AUKUS announcement
there are likely to be more submarine deployments to the region including the establishment of a trilateral submarine task force. What is lacking for the region is any form of security
architecture in which allies and partners can discuss issues and coordinate responses orthis would not include China and by developing an integrated security structure it builds a better integrated deterrence effect where allies and partners are stronger together.
The UK could expand its experience of establishing maritime Combined Task Forces (CTF) that have been successful in the Arabian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits 1. All these CTFs have included a mix of international partners and proved to be successful in deterring illicit activity, strengthening maritime security and reassuring region or international communities. London could establish something similar for the Indo-Pacific, or even several across the region, where partner nations can come together to police the increasingly crowded volatile seas and
airspaces of the region? While the UK can help to establish this/these HQs in the region it would be unlikely for them to be led by the UK – indeed they shouldn’t be. The UK could
provide the backbone of one of them and this would provide a ‘socket’ for the UK to ‘plug’ into when UK forces were deployed in the region, but more importantly bring like minded partners
together to improve security across the region. The byproduct being a more coherent deterrent strategy toward the region.
Brig Rory Copinger-Symes is a former Chief of Staff to EUNAVFOR and Director of Security Cooperation in Indo-Pacom Headquarters. He is now a senior advisor to Bondi Partners, an
Australian consultancy and advisory firm.
Dr. John Hemmings is Senior Director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the Pacific Forum, a think tankin Honolulu. He has been a witness to two Parliamentary Defence Committee Inquires on
the Indo-Pacific region and formerly worked at RUSI on Northeast Asia.
1 In the Arabian Gulf is Combined Maritime Forces including CTF 150, 151 & 152. EUNAVFOR which used to be based out of the
UK countering piracy in Somalia and the Indian Ocean. Based out of Singapore was the International Fusion Centre to counter
piracy in the Malacca Straits.