UK plans to open military bases in south-east Asia
The move could split ASEAN and put the UK in China’s cross hairs
LONDON, Jan 11: UK Foreign Minister Jeffrey Hunt and Defence Minister Gavin Williamson have been quoted as saying Britain will establish a permanent naval base in Southeast Asia - perhaps in Singapore or Brunei. This would be the first new British military base in the region in more than half a century.
The idea has been stimulated in part by Brexit. At least initially, the UK will be weakened by withdrawal from the European Union. Some members of Prime Minister Theresa May's government reckon that, to thrive after the separation, the nation must boost economic relations with Asia. To ensure this, it must protect sea lanes and investments there. Because Britain cannot do this alone, it must enhance military relations with the United States, which needs help to constrain Beijing in the South China Sea.
But China is likely to see this as a move by one of its former colonial masters to become part of the US strategic cabal to confront and constrain it. Indeed, China also sees the new US Indo-Pacific Strategy and the revival of the Quad - a potential loose security coordination mechanism between India, Japan, Australia and the US - as evidence of this strategy.
Beijing is also likely to view the move as compounding a strategic existential threat. China has built a new submarine base at Yulin, on Hainan Island in the South China Sea for its nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines. These are its deterrent to a nuclear first strike against it. They need to hide in the South China Sea to be effective.
The presence of a major British base and patrols mean more intelligence probes that could inhibit their ability to hide, thus removing its deterrent capability and exposing China to defeat in a nuclear exchange. Already, much to China's angst, a British warship has challenged China's claimed baselines around the Paracel Islands.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest China's maritime sovereignty claims but have gone on the back foot since 2010 as Beijing uses technological and economic advantages to expand at sea. It has landfilled a series of tiny islets, some for military use.
Russia on Friday condemned British plans to open military bases in south-east Asia and the Caribbean and said it stood ready to take retaliatory measures if its own interests or those of its allies were threatened. -REUTERS