The Euro-Atlantic or the Indo-Pacific: a false choice

As HMS Queen Elizabeth and her accompanying multinational Carrier Strike Group steams through the Indian Ocean towards the Pacific, a certain kind of argument against this deployment, against the ‘tilt’ to the Indo Pacific, and perhaps implicitly against the thinking behind ‘Global Britain’ trails along behind it. It goes something like this: 

Why would the UK, a European country and no longer a great power, send its scarce naval resources to the far side of the world, when they should be kept closer to home waters and committed to defending Europe from Russia?

The criticism works on the logic that the Royal Navy has so few ships at least compared to the United States (US) or People’s Republic of China (PRC), or compared to how many it had in the past, that the United Kingdom (UK) must let go of a global role and settle into being a ‘middle power’ with the role of deterring Russia for Europe. But is it really necessary to make a choice between the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific?

True, a ship can only be in one place at a time. However, some of the assumptions that seem to underpin this argument are built on less than firm foundations –

Assumption 1: Superpowers alone have global reach and the UK is not one. Britain should get used to the fact that it is not an Empire any more and trim its ambitions

There is only one superpower today, but several countries project power and influence by deploying ships around the world. Most of them are friendly to the UK. Fortunately the navies of the United States, Japan, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia and India also happen to be the most capable. The UK is one of the very few countries with a network of allies, bases, support facilities, and other diplomatic arrangements built to sustain global reach. As new strong middle powers like India and the PRC grow in strength, and the gap in relative power between nations continues to close, the assumption that only superpowers have roles and interests beyond their home region is no longer reliable (if it ever was).  

Talk of ‘finite resources’ is a fallacy insofar as resources are always finite. Critics of the tilt may think the contrast between the power of the Royal Navy in the age of empire and that of today makes the argument for a withdrawal from a global role. However, the fact is that even the British Empire operated in the Pacific at the furthest extent of its capability. That was why in 1902 Britain made an alliance with Japan to share the burden of its commitments. Maintaining freedom of navigation and upholding an open maritime order was and remains a team effort, even for the largest power. 

Assumption 2: The navy needs to be kept at home to deter Russian aggression

The first thing wrong with this assumption is that it supposes that the instruments used to achieve strategic and foreign policy aims in the Indo-Pacific are the same as those needed for protecting British interests in Europe. What if Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, attacks the British Isles or a British ally and the Royal Navy’s carrier is thousands of miles away? 

First, the failure of an attack by Russia against the UK or any other NATO ally would be guaranteed by a range of factors not connected to the location of Royal Navy ships at any given moment. Although conventional forces play a role in deterring such aggression, a direct conflict with Russia has been deterred and would be contained more by the risk of nuclear escalation and economic ruin than by the added value of one nation’s carrier strike forces. 

From an operational perspective, there are other reasons to doubt the need to keep the CSG exclusively for use against Russia. Likely flashpoints such as the Baltic and the Black Sea are crowded with land-based missile systems, so hardly ideal for an aircraft carrier. Although sea-based aircraft make a contribution to keeping the North Atlantic free and open, during absences land-based maritime aviation combined with submarine and anti-submarine assets remain available for the job. 

Another factor that argues against keeping the fleet at home is time. Unlike the Soviet Union, the Russia of today is not equipped to roll across Europe. Putin shows no sign of testing NATO deterrence by launching a conventional attack. Despite the bluster and disinformation, Russia’s Black Sea forces fired not a single warning shot at HMS Defender. But should Russia be unwise enough to attack, Britain would respond as part of an allied campaign over the duration of months or years, not hours or days. Hence Europe, while menaced by security threats and provocations, is not at war nor on a war footing. It is difficult to imagine a contingency for which the UK would need its CSG in a time-frame shorter than it takes to move Royal Navy warships into position.

This assumption seems to overlook one of the best features of naval power: it moves. Not only can warships reach more places and loiter longer than other platforms, they can also be redeployed faster and more independently than ground or air assets that need diplomatic clearances and logistical support obtained through processes that can be both lengthy and susceptible to outside interference. 

Assumption 3: Britain makes no difference to the Indo-Pacific balance of power; the US will handle China and prefers the UK sticks to NATO

The main thing that this assumption misses is that the deployment of the CSG to the Indo-Pacific is about as far from the act of a ‘Britain Alone’ as could be imagined. The group itself is multinational, with elements from the US Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy. It will be the centrepiece of exercises with several partners in the region, building interoperability and gaining trust and influence. This ‘convening power’ that the CSG generates contributes to regional efforts to counterbalance a single actor that may be tempted to abuse its strength to alter the status quo by force, and is exactly the kind of thing one might expect to be applauded by the cheerleaders of ‘multilateralism’. 

As for America, while some speculate or advise that the US discourages the UK from its ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, not only is there ample evidence to the contrary, American officials are practically lining up to explain the value added by a Royal Navy presence in the region. In testimony to the House of Commons Defence Committee last week, a former Commander of the US Army in Europe, Gen. (rtd.) Ben Hodges responded to a question about the UK’s decision to deploy the CSG to the Indo-Pacific: 

Martin Docherty-Hughes: Do you welcome it, or do you think we should be concentrating on the Euro-Atlantic area?

Lieutenant General Hodges: I absolutely welcome it. What a terrific maiden or first operational deployment it is for the strike group to have a global mission and to practise…The whole world saw HMS Defender demonstrate how you enforce international law. If just the US is doing this with China, the Chinese will believe, “Okay, we don’t have to worry about everybody else.” There is a seam between the United States and Europe when it comes to China. That creates a vulnerability for all of us.”

Adm. (rtd.) James Stavridis, Another former Commander of US forces in Europe and NATO Supreme Commander with extensive experience in the Indo-Pacific, also wrote this month:

The best approach will be for the United States to increase its maritime deployments to the region while building a coalition of nations willing to operate with it in creating theater deterrence. Thus far, Australia, Great Britain [sic], Japan, and France have demonstrated the maritime capability and indicated a potential willingness to participate, at least at the level of joining current freedom of navigation patrols. For the United States, this is a start for building a coalition strategy that may bring those partners alongside in pushing back on Chinese claims.

But as General Hodges also says, ‘the British military – the Royal Navy – does not exist to do what the US needs.’ The Royal Navy needs to be in the Indo-Pacific for its own reasons. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – the PRC’s navy – is the fastest emerging modern navy in the world. Russian defence budgets may be declining, but Russia-China partnership in defence technology is becoming closer, and the Indo-Pacific is the theatre where the global standard is being set for top tier performance. If the Royal Navy is to maintain its standard of operational excellence – wherever it might need to be applied – the Indo-Pacific is the place to go to keep ‘pace’ with the would-be competition.

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

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