Post-Brexit Britain is thrusting itself into 21st-century great power competition with the deployment of a massive carrier strike group through Asia and the bitterly contested South China Sea this month, marking the Royal Navy’s most ambitious mission since the Falklands War of the early 1980s.
It’s the clearest example to date of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to reinvent and reenergize British foreign policy as the nation emerges from its divorce from the European Union with grand ambitions of once again becoming a major player on the world stage. Having largely played a supporting role to the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere during the post-9/11 counterterrorism era, regional analysts say, London is turning its attention to the east as China continues its rapid ascent as a global military and economic powerhouse.
Like the U.S., Australia and other allies around the world, the United Kingdom has a vested interest in ensuring that the critical waterway of East Asia does not fall under full Chinese control. The naval mission through the South China Sea, the same type of “freedom of navigation” expedition that the U.S. has become known for in the region, is a clear sign of Britain’s willingness to reassert itself.
But the mission has even deeper significance. It’s Britain’s first major military excursion since formally exiting the EU. Although a deployment of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its accompanying flotilla had long been in the works, analysts say, the timing of the voyage is no accident.
“This all needs to be viewed in a post-Brexit lens,” said Leah Scheunemann, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative.
“They’re trying to re-find their footing vis-a-vis the United States, and vis-a-vis Europe,” said Ms. Scheunemann, who previously served as country director for the United Kingdom and Ireland at the Pentagon. “Because of historic ties to the Indo-Pacific and historically the strength of their naval assets, specifically, there definitely is the view that this is a little bit of going back to the past, regaining that glory” of the heyday of the British Empire.
The British Navy’s 28-week trip through the Pacific will cover 26,000 nautical miles with visits to more than 40 countries, officials said. Led by the Queen Elizabeth, a fleet of submarines, destroyers, anti-submarine frigates and other vessels also will set sail. A U.S. Navy destroyer and a frigate from the Netherlands will accompany the British strike group.
“When our carrier strike group sets sail … it will be flying the flag for ‘global Britain,’ projecting our influence, signaling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow,” U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said last week. “The entire nation can be proud of the dedicated men and women who for more than six months will demonstrate to the world that the U.K. is not stepping back but sailing forth to play an active role in shaping the international system of the 21st century.”
Mr. Johnson, who owes his office and strong parliamentary majority largely to the politics of Brexit, in March laid out his “Global Britain” plan as the nation’s post-Brexit road map. Now disentangled from the EU and able to make foreign policy decisions entirely on its own, Britain will center its future on a “robust position on security and resilience” and a “renewed commitment to the U.K. as a force for good in the world,” the proposal reads in part.
Brexit skeptics argued that Britain’s clout going it alone will pale beside the combined heft of EU membership, but Mr. Johnson appears determined to prove them wrong.
As a key member of NATO, the U.K. will remain a major player in the U.S.-European effort to blunt Russian aggression on the continent. While all British forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan as part of the joint U.S.-NATO pullout, the U.K. still is expected to be involved in counterterrorism efforts, particularly if more hot spots emerge in Africa and the Middle East.
Britain, which this week is playing host to foreign ministers of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations and will welcome Mr. Biden and fellow G-7 leaders to Cornwall next month, also is deeply involved in the push to renegotiate an international deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
The most pressing challenges of the next several decades, however, all revolve around China.
The U.K. plan to push back militarily and economically on Chinese expansion has met with an especially chilly reaction in Beijing. Across the region, the effort also is likely to stir memories of Britain’s long, complex history in the theater, from its colonization of Hong Kong to the 19th-century opium wars with China.
Chinese officials have made no secret that they disapprove of the Royal Navy’s move through the Pacific.
“China hopes that countries outside the region will respect the aspiration of countries in the region to maintain peace and stability and promote cooperation for development, and refrain from taking actions that could complicate the situation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters last week when asked about the mission.
As its military encroaches further into the South China Sea and invests heavily in new warships, fighter planes and cutting-edge weapons, Beijing also is using its vastly ambitious Belt and Road economic initiative to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in developing economies around the world. That effort has helped China cultivate new alliances in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere while ensuring that dozens of countries are now in debt — financially and politically — to the Chinese Communist Party.
Nations such as Pakistan that were once under British control now have a burgeoning partnership with China.
Meanwhile, Chinese companies such as Huawei are playing a leading role in key 21st-century technological infrastructure such as 5G networks. The U.S. and U.K. have taken steps to ban Huawei products in their nations’ networks largely out of suspicion that Chinese equipment contains secret “back doors” that could be used to eavesdrop and gather intelligence.
In Washington, Britain’s involvement in Pacific freedom of navigation operations and a broader pushback against China is welcome news for the Biden administration, which is eager to enlist allies in the fight. In a speech to Congress last week, President Biden said he recently told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the U.S. and its allies will not cede the region to Beijing. He also said the U.S. and its partners oppose Chinese human rights abuses such as the treatment of minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.
“I also told President Xi that we’ll maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific, just as we do with NATO in Europe: not to start a conflict, but to prevent one,” Mr. Biden said. “I told him what I’ve said to many world leaders: that America will not back away from our commitments — our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms and to our alliances.”
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