Britannia Helps Rule the Waves
The Royal Navy’s return to Asia can guarantee the freedom of the seas.
The freedom of the seas is facing its greatest threat in decades from authoritarian rulers who flout maritime law and the liberal “rules-based order” of seagoing trade, commerce, and martial endeavors it underwrites. Xi Jinping’s China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over some 80-90 percent of the South China Sea, meaning it intends to make the rules governing maritime activities and amass overpowering armed might to enforce them—including in waters apportioned to its neighbors by treaty. Meanwhile Vladimir Putin’s Russia has mounted a de facto blockade of Ukraine’s southeastern seacoast, seizing Ukrainian vessels and their crews trying to enter the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea.
That’s why it’s time for European leaders to speak up and show up—and perhaps none more so than Britain, once the chief enforcer of the modern law of the sea. Remaining silent about lawlessness is tantamount to consenting to it—and the consent of states is a wellspring of international law.
So the news that “global Britain” is returning to waters “east of Suez” is music to the ears of friends of nautical liberty. It’s the opposite of acquiescing to Chinese or Russian affronts. “This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War,” said British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson. “This is our moment to be that true global player once more—and I think the armed forces play a really important role as part of that.” In short, Britain is staging a comeback in the Indian and Pacific oceans—and it has put the region on notice that it intends to stay.
If it’s critical to speak up, friends of maritime freedom must also build up naval and military forces and dispatch them to hot spots where the freedom of the seas is in peril. They must put steel behind their words. And they must pool their military might with allies, not just to bolster their strength but to telegraph unity and resolve. If the allies speak with one voice—and put skin in the game, in the form of fighting ships and sailors, to show they mean it—Beijing, Moscow, and others may take heed. At the same time, their message will gladden the hearts of weaker states subjected to autocrats’ bullying. It will embolden the weak to stand up for their rights and privileges.
A standing British presence in Indo-Pacific waters will be a throwback to imperial days. Britain began the withdrawal of its forces east of Suez starting in the 1950s for good reason: It had exhausted itself beating back the Central Powers and then the Axis in the world wars, the sun was setting on the empire, and the United States had taken up the mantle of Western diplomatic and military leadership.
Britannia no longer rules the waves. For all that, though, its navy remains a world-class force despite its shriveled inventory of ships and aircraft. In 2020, the Royal Navy will deploy a projected 30 vessels suitable for fighting for control of the seas, including an aircraft carrier and a handful of nuclear-powered attack submarine and guided-missile destroyers and frigates. (A clutch of logistics, repair, and other auxiliary vessels helps keep the fleet fit for action.) Though stretched thin, such a fleet can help protect the freedom of the seas by concentrating its few warships in or near embattled expanses such as the South China Sea and working alongside U.S. and allied navies. It increasingly boasts ships able to anchor a serious presence, such as its recently commissioned first supercarrier, dubbed HMS Queen Elizabeth. A second, HMS Prince of Wales, should commence sea trials this year.
London plans to equip the flattops’ flight decks with F-35 stealth fighters. Last year, in fact, the Queen Elizabeth conducted flight qualifications off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. U.S. Marine Corps aviators, who fly the same jump-jet variant of the F-35 that the Royal Navy is procuring, were among the first to “trap,” or land aboard, the British carrier and vault skyward again. It seems London considers the Royal Navy part of a larger allied fleet. This is a welcome attitude. It not only suggests that the British and U.S. navies intend to forge themselves into a cohesive fighting force, but it also projects an image of trans-Atlantic solidarity.
London has already gestured on behalf of the freedom of the seas, both unilaterally and in concert with allies. Last September, the amphibious transport HMS Albion passed close by the Paracel Islands, eliciting the usual grumping from Chinese officialdom. For good measure, the Albion then put into nearby Vietnam, a frequent target of Chinese intimidation that has been flirting with the United States for some time, for a goodwill visit. The frigate HMS Argyll joined U.S. Navy vessels for joint drills in the South China Sea last month after tarrying at Yokosuka, in Tokyo Bay. Yokosuka is home to the U.S. 7th Fleet and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s 1st Escort Flotilla. Such choreographed ship movements show that London is speaking up and showing up.
Now, admittedly, the Royal Navy is shockingly lean in numbers. It operates just 19 destroyers and frigates. Factor in training, overhauls, and routine upkeep and London can expect to have roughly 10 surface combatants available on any given day. And those vessels must not only perform sentry duty alongside carriers at sea, fending off air, missile, and submarine attacks, but also police the United Kingdom’s offshore waters, show the flag in foreign ports, and execute the other myriad tasks that all sea services execute. It’s doubtful any Royal Navy fleet forward-deployed to China’s or Russia’s backyard would constitute a war-winning force by itself. The inventory is just too thin.
As part of a multinational fleet, though, the Royal Navy contingent could prove invaluable. Suppose London opted to deploy a carrier task force centered on HMS Queen Elizabeth or Prince of Wales to Southeast Asia. This isn’t far-fetched. In fact, just last week Williamson announced that the Queen Elizabeth would make the journey once ready for action, possibly as early as this year. A U.S. Marine Corps F-35 squadron will constitute part of the carrier’s aircraft complement when it does deploy. Beyond making a statement about Anglo-American solidarity, what actual difference would a clutch of ships flying the Union Jack and warplanes bearing the U.S. Marines’ “eagle, globe, and anchor” insignia make? Well, the U.S. 7th Fleet is built around an aircraft carrier group stationed in Yokosuka, far to the north, while Japan’s navy operates “helicopter destroyers,” or light aircraft carriers. That covers Northeast Asia. The Indian Navy roams west of Malacca, while the compact but capable Royal Australian Navy is based to the south, in an exterior position beyond the South China Sea rim.
In other words, naval forces currently in place occupy antechambers adjoining the South China Sea. A Royal Navy carrier force would help firm up the allied naval presence within Southeast Asia itself—and perhaps prompt Beijing to think twice before future aggression. And what if other navies joined the combined force? The more the merrier, from both an operational and a political standpoint. France, to name one such contender, is increasingly outspoken about the freedom of the seas. As the French Defense Ministry noted: “As the only European nation with a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific, France participates in regional cooperation with the aim of guaranteeing respect for international law without interfering with regional disputes.”
In keeping with this policy, Paris has announced that it will deploy the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, fresh from midlife refueling and overhaul, to the Indo-Pacific this year to uphold nautical freedom. Alas, it appears the French government isn’t quite ready to combine carrier forces with the Royal Navy to constitute a European naval aviation contingent. But think about what the Royal Navy and French Navy could accomplish if they did join forces. With three flattops at their disposal, an Anglo-French sea service would boast enough hulls to keep one on station in Southeast Asia at all times.
It’s an open question whether Brexit will disrupt such collaborative endeavors. It need not from a military standpoint. While Britain appears poised to leave the European Union, NATO endures—and allied navies typically work together using NATO tactics, techniques, and procedures, even when deployed outside Atlantic or Mediterranean waters. The mechanism for naval cooperation will remain unaffected should the allies agree to use it. The real question is whether Brexit has poisoned political relations between London and fellow European capitals to such an extent that erstwhile EU partners will shun working with Britain and the Royal Navy.
One hopes not. If London and Paris see the challenge to the freedom of the seas as an overriding mutual interest, they may well set aside any feuding over their relations within Europe. They could agree that different rules will govern Anglo-French interactions east of Suez: bicker in Europe, set politics aside in the Indo-Pacific. Such sotto voce arrangements are commonplace in diplomacy. For example, U.S. and French intelligence services worked together in harmony even amid the trans-Atlantic acrimony of 2002-2003, when members of the U.S. Congress took to feasting on “Freedom Fries” to protest French conduct preceding the invasion of Iraq.
Sound strategic logic stands behind a plug-and-play allied fleet, and historical precedent stands behind it to boot. A century ago, British officialdom devised a “fleet unit” concept whereby Dominion countries such as Australia and New Zealand would design their navies to operate as freestanding services in peacetime yet configure them to plug into a British imperial fleet when war loomed in the Pacific Ocean. Cruiser and destroyer formations were the coin of the realm back then. Today, aircraft carrier battle groups—carriers plus their escorts—could constitute the modules in a grand Pacific fleet bringing together European, American, and Asian navies.
The more allied navies build or buy compatible hardware, and the more they work together, the more feasible a multinational navy composed of fleet units will become. Whatever shape the fleet takes, it will have plenty of places to dock. British engineers are constructing installations in the Persian Gulf and South China Sea to host expeditionary forces. Last year, a facility opened in Bahrain, the seat of U.S. naval power in the Gulf. Another, in Oman, is slated to commence operations this year. Meanwhile, London is eyeing Commonwealth countries, presumably Brunei or Singapore, as candidate sites for a South China Sea base.
Once in service, a British naval station—especially if located in Brunei, near the contested Spratly Islands along the southeasterly rim of the South China Sea—will help offset the partial loss of the Philippines as a staging base along the eastern rim. Manila has proved increasingly unreliable as a U.S. ally since President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016 and started making noises about striking up an entente cordiale with Beijing—an arrangement likely to subvert the Philippines’s treaty relationship with Washington. So, assuming London opens its installations to the U.S. Navy, a Commonwealth base will offer an alternative to the erratic Duterte.
Europeans are speaking up about the rules-based order of the sea with mounting vigor. Warships flying European flags are showing up in South and East Asia to punctuate diplomats’ words. And better yet, Britain and France appear poised to go and stay in the region. Someday, when politics permit, they might even bow to strategic logic and merge their expeditionary forces into a European Far East fleet that works alongside Americans and Asians to ward off menaces to the freedom of the seas.
Those would be glad tidings. Custodianship of the rules-based order is a common cause of all seafaring nations, not the weary American titan alone. Defenders of the freedom of the seas can broadcast a united message through words and ship movements—and make China and Russia hear.