New narrative in the Indo-Pacific

The return of European powers to China’s back yard signifies Asia’s failure to create its own internal defence structures, but could also benefit Beijing. Humphrey Hawksley reports

Europe’s navies are returning to Asia in a move that could either inflame or help keep tensions under control. Britain and France have deployed warships to the contested South China Sea and announced that more are on their way.

For the West it is a natural culmination of Donald Trump’s trade war, the European Union redefinition of China as a systemic rival and the necessary reaction to Beijing’s open violation of the rules-based order by building military bases in international waters.

But for Beijing this scenario conjures up the 19th century spectre of foreign gunboats invading its shores that led to its Century of Humiliation.

The projection of British and French military power into this theatre changes the narrative that Beijing had hoped to write, namely that the South China Sea was a dispute of Asian values pitted against Western ones, whereby China represented modern, forward-looking Asia against the outdated, fading and flawed West.

The European deployment adds to the six long-standing military alliances the US has in the Indo-Pacific with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand.

These arrangements are strictly bilateral. The region has pointedly failed to create an indigenous multi-lateral defence structure, which is partly the reason for Europe’s return.

The only Asian multi-lateral body is the Five Power Defence Arrangement created in 1971 by Britain. Comprising Australia, Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore, its original aim was to dampen antagonism between Singapore and Malaysia, for which there is now no military need.

Although low profile, the FPDA has never stopped functioning. Its sense of purpose has been bolstered by the South China Sea dispute and overall China threat.

Britain retains a small naval logistics facility at Sembawang in Singapore. Some 50 Australian Defence Force personnel are stationed at Royal Malaysian Air force Base Butterworth outside of Penang.  There are discussions about upgrading facilities and setting up a permanent British base in the region, with suggestions bouncing between Singapore, Australia and Brunei, where Britain already has an infantry battalion of Gurkhas and a helicopter unit for training.

British began implementing its new Indo-Pacific policy in 2018 when three Royal Navy vessels –the frigates HMS Sutherland and HMS Argyll, and the amphibious assault ship HMS Albion – were deployed through the South China Sea and East China Sea.

HMS Albion sailed close to the Paracel islands in the type of freedom of navigation operation more often carried out by American warships.

Britain now plans to send its new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier through the region in 2021 with a strike group to underline the multi-lateral structure of the West’s blue water naval Indo-Pacific operations.

The carrier will be accompanied by Dutch and French warships and carry US F-35 warplanes with American air crews. There are suggestions that it may even operate under the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii.

In East Asia, Britain retains a responsibility towards Hong Kong until 2047 and is a signatory to the United Nations command that oversees the 1953 Korean War armistice.

In the Indian Ocean it claims sovereignty, albeit disputed, over the remote Chagos Archipelago, south of the Maldives. Although only 23 square miles, it contains the Diego Garcia military base leased to the Americans

France’s Indo-Pacific interests lie with its territories there, home to 1.5 million French citizens and accounting for more than 90 per cent of the nation’s exclusive economic zone. Some 8000 French troops are stationed on islands that run across from Reunion in the western Indian Ocean to French Polynesia’s Tahiti in the South Pacific.

In mid-2019 the Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group, with its 18 Rafale fighters, sailed through the region and conducted exercises with Australia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the US. France’s Armed Forces Minister, Florence Parly, stated bluntly that new ‘building blocks of global confrontation’ were taking place in Asia.

The FPDA’s sense of purpose has been bolstered by the overall China threat

It is significant that Australia has signed a $35 billion contract to buy 12 French military submarines in a deal lasting until 2050, thus setting up a long-term defence arrangement between the two governments.

Other defence arrangements are being forged. India is helping Vietnam with an array of weaponry including submarines, frigates and coastal patrol craft, mostly Russian made. Israel, too, is becoming a presence with its technology driven avionics, missile systems and radars. About half of its defence sales are now going to the Indo-Pacific.

Europe’s return signals the failure of Asia to create its own internal defence structures.  More decades might have allowed time for the Indo-Pacific’s institutions to strengthen and mature, but China’s rapid advancement has brought an urgency that Western powers insist needs addressing.

Smaller nations are familiar with living under superpower influence. For many, an Indo-Pacific watched over by the US, UK and France is preferable because it represents a predictable status quo.

For Beijing, however, the sight of a British gunboat violating Chinese sovereignty under a banner of protecting trade carries echoes of the Opium Wars and puts a spotlight on the Communist Party’s pledge to guarantee that no such humiliation can be allowed to happen again.

This conundrum accompanies the general pushback against China’s expansion and Beijing is not helping itself by flouting its authoritarian values in a manner that risks a collision course with the West’s democratic ones.

In a short space of time a dark, dictatorial side has emerged.with prison camps in Xinjiang, increased repression and surveillance of its citizens, unrest in Hong Kong and threats against Taiwan.

For Western governments dealing with voter opinion and 24-hour news cycles, a pivotal clash of opposing values could arrive sooner rather than later.  At that moment, the issues about trade would melt away against television pictures of concentration camps, brutality and ethnic cleansing.

In that respect, the return of outside powers to Beijing’s own back yard may be doing it a great favour. The array of nations lined up behind the United States sends an unequivocal message that China’s time may not yet have come and it is far better to work alongside its regional neighbours and the current world order than challenge and lose.


Humphrey Hawksley is an Asia specialist and former BBC Beijing correspondent. His latest book is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion

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