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Britain not a strategic ally for US in Asia

Date

Harry White

American, Australian, and British soldiers stand beside their national flags during a Remembrance Day ceremony at the U.S. embassy compound in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, November 11, 2006.

American, Australian, and British soldiers stand beside their national flags during a Remembrance Day ceremony at the U.S. embassy compound in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, November 11, 2006. Photo: Reuters

At the press conference following the Australia-Britain ministerial meeting this month, Defence Minister David Johnston offered the use of Australian defence facilities to Britain. The idea that Britain could be a friend in need in Asia comes from our history, and because since 1945, Britain has played the role of America's most valuable ally. And in both Australia and Britain we tend to assume that will continue now America's strategic focus has moved to Asia.

But Britain cannot follow Washington to Asia the way she has in the past. That means Britain needs a new role, and that there's a limit to what both Washington and Canberra can expect of London in the Asian century.

London was a big player in Asia, but that finally ended when prime minister Harold Wilson announced the withdrawal east of Suez in 1968. But back then Britain's economy was larger than China's, now China's is almost four times the size of Britain's. Britain lacks the strategic weight to be America's best friend in Asia, even if it wanted to be.

Harold Macmillan once said that the United States was ''the new Roman empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go''. But the more America focuses on Asia, the less Britain will be able to support Washington's strategic interests, and the more absurd it will be for Britain to define its role in the world as America's best friend. Britain cannot play the role of the Greeks any more, it must find a new one.

But Britain's strategic policy is out of step with this reality, and the British Foreign Secretary in particular seems reluctant to let go of Macmillan's chosen role.

William Hague has said that his "vision for Britain in the world is of a nation committed to an international, global role''. That's Macmillan through and through. Also that, "[Britain] will continue to be a robust ally of the US for the future and a first rate military power." And: "Those who might think that British engagement with Asia is a thing of the past, or that we will become a partner of declining relevance, could not be more wrong."

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond is on the same page, saying at the meeting: "As our focus increasingly turns to the Asia Pacific, I would expect us to send ships more regularly in future in the Pacific", and even went so far as to hint at British bases in the region in the future.

Britain's government is articulating a desire to return to Asia. That desire is driven by the shift in American interests and by Britain's role in supporting Washington, as well as the remarkable economic growth in the region.

To the extent that means there's potential for London to push a robust economic agenda in the world's engine of growth, this all sounds very sensible. The FCO's efforts to increase its diplomatic footprint in Asia make sense in that context too. But strategically, there can be no return east of Suez for Britain - despite Britain's defence spending being the fifth highest in the world.

Even if Britain were willing to accept the costs of getting involved in a large war in Asia, it would not be in a position to make a strategically significant contribution. Of course future efforts on London's behalf in support of Washington will be appreciated. But if there is a conflict between China on one side, and the US and its Asian allies on the other, Britain will not be in a position to deploy sufficient military force in Asia to make any more than a marginal impact.

High-intensity war is not Asia's only possible future, of course, in fact it is one that everyone desperately want to avoid. But exactly what it is to be a significant player in a region, as Britain knows only too well, is to be able to significantly shape the way events unfold if things get out of hand. If it can't reasonably expect to alter the course of a hot war, it will not be a strategic player in the absence of conflict either.

That means that Britain will not be a first-order ally of Washington in Asia. Because America's core interests are at issue in Asia, it means London won't be a first order ally in practice at all. It will remain a trusted friend, but it will not be the lion at America's right hand. That itself raises further questions. Would they really be prepared to place one of the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers at serious risk to play a peripheral role in a conflict half a world away? The answer may be end up being yes, but it is not obvious.

Washington's strategic attention on the Western Pacific won't waver.

Despite the crisis in Ukraine, China's rise and regional ambition remains the most serious challenge to the world order America wants to lead. That challenge is likely to wax, not wane, over the coming years and decades.

Australia certainly can't expect more help from Britain than Britain can provide for America. Canberra and London will, of course, remain close friends. And a greater British diplomatic footprint in Asia is certainly no bad thing for Australia - it's always good to have friends round the table. But we shouldn't confuse a marginal diplomatic benefit with a serious strategic contribution.

However nostalgic Hague's words are, or however much they sound like a vision for the future, they are not a plan. Britain must finally respond to former US secretary of state Dean Acheson's quip that she has "lost an empire and not yet found a role."

For those in London (or Canberra and Washington) to continue to see Britain's strategic future as an extension of America's would be to confuse strategy with identity. Australia must not make the mistake of thinking Britain can provide anything more than a symbolic contribution to her security in the coming decades.

After all, Europe doesn't look so strategically inert these days; there might be work for London to do closer to home.

Harry White is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and these are his personal views.

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