East of Suez: The Folly of Britain’s Return to the Indian Ocean

cc Rich Denton, modified, As part of Ex Khanjar Oman based near Duqm, Oman, soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Royal Scots Dragoons conducted Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) training in the desert, using their Foxhound, Jackal and Cayote fighting vehicles, they will be joined by the Carrier Strike Group and F35s of the Royal Air Force. Exercise Khanjar Oman will simulate the arduous desert conditions they will face when the battlegroup is deployed to Mali in 2022 as part of the UN MINUSMA mission., https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_Queen_Elizabeth_Duqm_Port_Oman.jpg

More than half a century ago, the British government pledged to end its security operations east of Suez. The economy was going through one of its sticky patches and money had to be saved. But the real reason for the policy change was that the days of empire were over and newly independent states like India, Singapore, and Malaysia were ready to forge their own futures. The need for Britain to rove across the wider region had passed.

No one expected this historic decision to be reversed. Yet, step by step, this is exactly what has happened. Referred to in official circles as a ‘Tilt’ towards the region, the return was at first sotto voce, before more recent proclamations under the post-Brexit banner of ‘Global Britain.’ Four examples of what amounts to a seminal U-turn are described below.


Returning to the Indian-Pacific

The first move was confirmed in 2014 (six years before Brexit) when the then prime minister, David Cameron, announced that work would begin on a new permanent naval base in Bahrain, strategically located within the Persian Gulf. Concerns about Bahrain’s dismal human rights record were brushed aside. Cameron argued that a stronger presence would not only prevent possible disruption to oil supplies from the region but could also be used for anti-terrorist operations and to counter piracy in the open sea beyond. Named HMS Juffair, the base is located in Manama, close to that of the US Fifth Fleet. Its proximity to Iran was a critical factor in its development, evidenced by America’s own concentration of naval power within the Gulf state. This is all very well but it might be timely for Britain to consider withdrawing in favor of an international task force supported by friendly states within the region.

A second intervention east of Suez came in the wake of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson was keen to enhance his country’s global role. In an overt challenge to China’s naval ascendancy in the Indo-Pacific, Britain was invited to join America and Australia in a project named AUKUS, designed to build a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines on Australian soil. An earlier plan for diesel-powered vessels, led by France, was jettisoned in favour of the new arrangement. Buttressed by a longstanding agreement with the United States for the two nations to share their nuclear ‘know how,’ Britain found itself once again a key player in security affairs on the far side of the world. It chimed well with the post-Brexit aspirations of the prime minister, but it was questionable whether for Britain it was anything more than a tenuous reminder of largely-forgotten days of imperial grandeur. In any case, to break the Anglo-Saxon nexus, Britain’s place in the triumvirate could be given to India, with the support of other countries in the region like Japan and South Korea.

The third example is centred on the mid-Indian Ocean archipelago known as the Chagos Islands, a former colony redesignated in the 1960s as the British Indian Ocean Territory. In 1966 Britain leased to the U.S. the largest island, Diego Garcia, for development as a major base. At Amerca’s request, the inhabitants of the other islands were forcibly removed, most going to Mauritius and a smaller number to Seychelles. The base was then developed in highly-secretive conditions for state-of-the art naval and airborne forces. Over the years, Chagos became an international cause célèbre for human rights and, under constant pressure, it seemed in 2022 that Britain was finally ready to cede the territory to Mauritius. Negotiations were started but then, following a change of prime minister, peremptorily halted. Allegedly urged on by the Americans, the prospect of resettlement of Chagossians on the outer islands has again been ruled out.

The overriding question must be the ‘safety, security and usability of this base.’ It can be no coincidence that the hardening of the UK/American position will have taken account of Iran’s active role in the ongoing Middle East conflict. Although Mauritius maintains that it would uphold the agreement to allow the U.S. to remain on Diego Garcia, the risk of a change of heart was clearly too much. The fact is that Britain should end its hold on these distant islands. America is well able to retain its tenure on Diego Garcia. Resettlement of the outer islands is not in itself a threat to security and should no longer be Britain’s responsibility. In any case, it is unlikely that many, if any at all, of the original settlers would choose to return to the remote islands, which lack any form of modern infrastructure.

Finally, there is the ongoing example of Britain’s military intervention alongside America to rebut rocket attacks from Yemen on shipping in the Red Sea. In an attempt to internationalize the effort, at the end of 2023 the U.S. announced the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian. This has been organized under the auspices of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Britain was quick to mark its support with the deployment of a dedicated warship but other countries which also stood to gain from the recovery of safe shipping lanes were not so eager to engage in military action. Several chose, instead, to limit their support to specialist advisers. For fear of retaliation by Hamas supporters, some countries even chose to join OPG but at the same time to remain anonymous. Explaining his own nation’s role, UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps asserted that ‘Britain continues to be at the forefront of the international response to the Houthis’ dangerous attacks on commercial vessels.’ During early 2024, Britain and America together carried out attacks on Houthi-controlled drone sites in Yemen. It can be argued that, although Britain’s role is principled, it will be unsustainable as a long-term strategy. Britain lacks the military capacity. States within the region should themselves be expected to assume a more assertive role.


Making Way for Realism

Briain’s withdrawal from east of Suez marked the end of an era. Or so it seemed. For the rest of the twentieth century, this post-colonial policy largely held. In recent years, however, the context for the original decision has changed. China’s presence in the Indian Ocean has created a new set of challenges, while India is emerging as a world power in its own right. Pakistan has a nuclear capacity and Iran is close to acquiring one too. America remains the most dominant force in the Indo-Pacific but faces formidable challenges to its global supremacy. So what has all this to do with Britain?

In an important review of Britain’s interests in the Indo-Pacific, a parliamentary committee concluded that the UK government “… should create a dedicated Indo-Pacific strategy [which] should include a comprehensive defence and diplomatic response to the growing threat posed by China under the CCP. This strategy should also identify the specific aims of ‘the Tilt’ and make clear how the government intends to achieve these, whilst being realistic about what is achievable.”

It is the last point that is particularly apposite. Is it any longer realistic for Britain to play an international role in a distant part of the world? There are already serious shortcomings in its defence budget amid questions about its capacity to engage in sustained military action. An unfortunate sign of its lack of preparedness came in March 2024 when the departure of Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to lead a major NATO exercise was cancelled at the last minute after an issue with a propeller shaft was detected during final checks.

China is, indeed, the main threat to the security of the Indo-Pacific. But, other than Britain’s vote in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, the situation should be addressed by the U.S. in association with countries in the region. Britain is acting as if it still sees itself as an effective global player rather than the middle ranking nation with limited capacity it has become. Realism suggests it would do better to focus, not on the Indo-Pacific but on security issues nearer home. Playing a key role within NATO and supplying Ukraine with the means to repel Russian forces are more obvious priorities. ‘Tilting’ to the east of Suez is surely no longer in its best interests; it is time to veer back into Europe.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author(s) alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.

Back to Top


Lost your password?