In the last week of October, Britain and India will conduct their first tri-service exercises. After the United States (US) and Russia, Britain will be the third country with whom India will conduct such an exercise. British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will participate in these exercises. The exercises and the deployment of the British Carrier Strike Group (CSG) to the Indo-Pacific region signify the return of Britain to the geopolitics of the region lying “East of Suez.”
The term “East of Suez,” popularized by a well-known British writer Rudyard Kipling through his poem “Mandalay,” was an important concept in the British strategic discourse. The British colonies and outposts in West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Pacific were all located “East of Suez.” The control over the continental and maritime spaces of the region lying along the Indian Ocean and parts of Western Pacific contributed in making Britain a global empire and a dominant power. Till the fall of Singapore in 1941 to the Japanese Imperial military, Britain reigned supreme over the waters of the Indian Ocean.
In the 19th century and first half of 20th century, the expansive British presence and imperatives of imperial strategy, inadvertently, had unified the region from the Suez to the South Pacific, the geographic extent of the Indo-Pacific region, which is in much vogue now. Post Second World War, Britain realized that it could not maintain the wide-ranging military presence “East of Suez.” In 1968, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced the withdrawal from the “East of Suez” by 1971 and the power vacuum left by Britain was sought to be filled by the US and Soviet Russia.
Fifty years after that, Britain is staging a comeback to the Indian Ocean. A series of steps indicate the growing British interest in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. Earlier this year, Britain has expressed its intentions to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific region in the Integrated Review of its foreign and security policy. The review stated that the Indo-Pacific region is “on the frontline of new security challenges, including in cyberspace.” In fact, Britain’s strategic, military and economic interests in the region push it to “work closely with regional partners” and it aims to “do more through persistent engagement by our armed forces and our wider security capacity-building.”
Britain is the third partner of the much-publicized security alliance between Australia, US and the United Kingdom, known as the AUKUS. In fact, when the AUKUS was announced on 15th September, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the purpose of the alliance is “to preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” Furthermore, AUKUS “will be one of the most complex and technically demanding projects in the world.” As a result, it has tied the US, UK and Australia in a long-term defence partnership that will see the US and UK arm Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines. The AUKUS is critical in the evolving strategy to manage China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region and will facilitate the growing British role in the region.
The recent deployments of the CSG to the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific are in line with the British intentions to stage a comeback in the region. Through defence diplomacy and military deployments, Britain has signalled its willingness to regularise its military presence in the region. The return to the Indian Ocean fits well with the strategy of “Global Britain” pursued by Britain after the exit from the European Union (EU). Britain’s key strategic partners like India, Australia, Oman, Bahrain and Kenya are located in the Indian Ocean. Britain is a key member of the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) which includes Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand and seeks to become a dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Until the Second World War, the Indian Ocean was known as a British Lake and even now, the Indian Ocean is probably the largest English-speaking region in the world. Apart from the strategic imperatives and significant economic stakes, the English language and cultural connections also play a role in facilitating the British return to the region. Britain is considered as one of the most likely candidates in the “Quad-Plus” arrangement as it enjoys strong strategic relationships with the Quad partner countries (India, US, Japan and Australia).
However, for Britain, there are challenges to its “return” to the Indian Ocean. The first challenge is about the British military capabilities. Does Britain have sufficient military capability to maintain a regular military presence in the Indian Ocean, let alone project its power to shape regional developments? Or does it have to piggyback on the US? If Britain is to channelize its energies towards the Indo-Pacific, how will it respond to the challenges closer home, including Russia?
Unlike France and the US, Britain does not enjoy an expansive network of military bases facilitating a regular strategic presence in the Indian Ocean region. Reorienting the British strategy towards the Indian Ocean will require Britain to augment its defence capabilities by spending more on the defence including on its navy and air force. Does Britain, after the exit from the European Union (EU), have the political willingness, financial capability and diplomatic staying power to do so?
The second challenge is the thorny issue of the Chagos archipelago which houses the formidable US military base of Diego Garcia. Britain retained the control of the strategically located Chagos archipelago even after the independence of Mauritius and allowed the US to establish a military base at Diego Garcia. Mauritius claims the Chagos archipelago and has won a case in the International Court of Justice on the issue. The controversial issue is yet to be resolved to the satisfaction of all three parties and poses a challenge in the British narrative of its return to the Indian Ocean.
The third challenge is Britain’s relationship with China and Pakistan. China is a major economic partner of Britain. Post-Brexit, can Britain afford to decouple its economy from China? Britain’s Integrated Review notes that the bilateral trade benefits both parties and yet, China presents the biggest state-based threat to Britain’s economic security. The strengthening of a defence alliance with US and Australia, which will have direct implications for China’s security environment in the Western Pacific, and China’s heavy-handed approach, displaying complete disregard for the past agreements, to the issue of Hong Kong’s autonomy (which was a former British colony) – all of this has complicated Britain’s relationship with China.
Moreover, Britain’s, generally well-disposed attitude towards Pakistan puts constraints on the full realization of the potential of Indo-British strategic partnership. Will Britain be able to minimize the contradictions in these relationships to augment its presence in the Indian Ocean?
Finally, the EU is taking a greater interest in the Indo-Pacific affairs as could be seen in its activities such as the release of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Decisions such as the Brexit and the betrayal of France through the AUKUS alliance has not made it any easier for Britain to stage a comeback in the Indian Ocean. What will be the British position towards the EU’s emerging role in the Indo-Pacific? Can they co-operate citing shared values and convergence in interests? Will EU, especially France, be willing to facilitate the British role in the Indian Ocean?
These considerations will determine the nature and scope of the British return to the Indian Ocean.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com