It would be great if Britain could step out of the past
Given its coming divorce from the European Union and its desire to show it is its own master, Britain seems to feel the need to demonstrate that its status is not dependent on it being part of the European collective.
But its intended means of displaying its glorious independence in Southeast Asia will only mark it out as a troublemaker.
British Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph last week, said Britain would open two new military bases in “a couple of years”, one in the Caribbean and the other in Southeast Asia with Singapore and Brunei as possible sites. This would unnecessarily break the current strategic equilibrium in the Asia-Pacific and fuel new tensions at the geopolitical level.
To be charitable, since Britain is hoping for a trade deal with the United States to keep its economy afloat after it severs its advantageous ties with its European partners, the move is perhaps one of desperation rather than malice.
In recent years, Washington has used the regional maritime disputes as an excuse to meddle in regional affairs and a means to create discord, and it has been pressuring its allies to do the same. London will be keen to show it’s willing to do so while holding out its cap for pennies.
US President Donald Trump’s announcement that Washington would stop playing the self-assumed role as a “world policeman” had raised hopes that the US would stop interfering in others’ affairs. So Britain’s plan to beef up its military presence in the region has naturally led people to think that London, unsatisfied with its previous role as Washington’s deputy sheriff, may seek to polish its prestige by claiming the tin star that the US seems to be discarding.
While that is beyond its capabilities, London as Washington’s loyal follower has always been willing to do Washington’s bidding, so there is no reason to think the new base will not do the same.
To project its power through naval muscle-flexing is a residual of Britain’s days of empire when it sent gunboats to convince others that homage was in order. Those days are past.
It is no longer a time when outside forces can impose their will on the region. With the mutual efforts of China and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the maritime disputes have not hindered efforts to enhance cooperation in the region.
More important, China and ASEAN members are quickening their steps in negotiating the text for a code of conduct in the South China Sea. Under such circumstances, London’s intention to militarize the waters is an error of judgment.