Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
HERO IR Essay 1800x500 ;

The Indo-Pacifc 'Tilt' and the Return of British Maritime Strategy

This essay was first published in July 2021, in the first volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: A Strategy Fit for the 2020s?

State-on-state competition is back as a defining feature of international affairs. The emerging ‘Biden doctrine’ notes as much, with authoritarian regimes like Russia and China representing the defining challenge of our time. With two long and costly military campaigns in central Asia and the Middle East now firmly taking their place on the shelves of history, what does this changing emphasis in the nature of international order mean for Britain? The publication in March 2021 of the much anticipated integrated review of British foreign and security policy, aptly titled Global Britain in a Competitive World, sought to answer this question. It unveiled how the government led by Boris Johnson intends to marshal different levers of national power to pursue Britain’s interests, however defined, in the post-Brexit age. One of the most significant shifts set forth in the document concern the different ways in which military power will help underwriting the country’s ability to influence world affairs. Moving away from a land-centric posture engaged in stabilization operations to counter non-state actors,

British military power will shift to a maritime centre of gravity designed to shape international stability, convene capacity for action, and deter war against major powers.– Dr Alessio Patalano

Britain and the Indo-Pacific in the Age of Competition


The integrated review process confirmed that the United States remains the UK’s closest ally and the UK considers this relationship as a cornerstone of the international order and stability. It also indicated that an unfettered use of shipping lanes underwrites global stability through maritime connectivity which, in turn, sustains the circulation of goods and resources and ultimately prosperity – the lifeblood of such an order. Without maritime stability the openness of the international order stands critically vulnerable. This is crucially significant since the main friction points of the Sino-American competition are at sea, notably in the East and South China Seas and across the Strait of Taiwan, and the Chinese declared intention to become a maritime power has direct repercussions on global maritime stability. The above considerations raise the question of the increasing centrality of the wider Indo-Pacific region at the structural level of international relations. Within this context, the Integrated Review’s acknowledgment of the need to shift Britain’s posture to a stronger maritime core is a manifestation of an understanding of the vital importance of both maritime connectivity and the region to Britain’s national security. The adoption of a specific ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ in the Integrated Review as one of Britain’s novel frameworks for policy action is the clearest manifestation of such a recognition.


Yet, the Indo-Pacific is more than an area of growing significance in Anglo-American relations. In this region the UK has standing commitments that derive from its role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the Five Powers Defence Agreement (FPDA). In particular, the UK remains part of the UN Command overseeing the Korean War armistice and has been involved in implementing at sea sanctions against North Korea since the monitoring of ship-to-ship transfers of materials supporting the North Korean nuclear programme started to be monitored in 2018. The UN Command membership implies no automatic commitment of UK forces in hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, but there is nonetheless international expectation that the UK would be involved in meeting such a challenge. Similarly, the FPDA does not commit UK forces to regional crises in Southeast Asia, but members are required to consult each other ‘immediately’ in the event of a threat or an armed attack. This creates a reasonable expectation for the UK to retain a degree of commitment to regional stability, if anything to reduce the risk of armed attacks occurring.

Beyond treaty obligations, some of the UK’s most important ties outside the Euro-Atlantic space are with countries in the region, – Dr Alessio Patalano

notably Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and India in addition to Australia and New Zealand (Five Eyes members), and ASEAN member states notably Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore (Commonwealth members).


The Indo-Pacific is also a central piece in the British post-Brexit global economic outreach. In January 2021, the UK government highlighted its ambition to prioritise access to fast-growing markets and major economies in the region through its submission of an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) agreement. This, in turn, elevated the region against an already expanding trade relationship. Indeed, in 2019, Asia already accounted for approximately 20% of both exports and imports. By way of comparison, the Americas accounted for 25% of UK exports and 16% of imports. More broadly, in the same year, seven of the UK’s top 25 export markets were in Asia. The top three in Asia – China, Japan and Hong Kong – together account for some US$82 billion of exports in goods and services, a value higher than that of Germany (the UK’s second-largest export market). Whilst the Indo-Pacific is not understood to replace Europe in economic terms, it certainly represents an important opportunity especially in areas such as, infrastructure, services, and digital economy.


The Maritime ‘Tilt’ of British Strategy


Against this background, ahead of the release of the Integrated Review, the government announced that it was committed to increase defence spending by some £24.1bn over the next four years, with the specific aim to ‘restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe’. Whilst this pledge did not eliminate outstanding funding problems, it did highlight how the government viewed the role of the Royal Navy as the frontline means of British international influence. In the Indo-Pacific, the defence document related to the Integrated Review, the Command Paper, further indicated that the notion of a ‘tilt’ was intended to mean that the UK would mobilise its limited resources to shape the stability of the regional environment, through capacity building and engagements to maintain the maritime order and, if needed, push back against revisionist attempts at undermining it. Indeed, emphasis on offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) and Littoral Response Groups (LRG) – centred on the converted Bay class support ships - as the main naval components to meet standing commitments outside the Euro-Atlantic area, suggests an approach that prioritises military deterrence in Europe, and shaping activities beyond its boundaries.


Relatedly, plans concerning the balance of the fleet suggest that the Royal Navy will be more forward-deployed. This is another important reference to the maritime shift of British strategy in the Integrated Review, with different assets taking advantage of a support structure that focuses on what a recent Policy Exchange report defined as a ‘places, not bases’ approach.

The aim is to favour a more persistent form of engagement, focused on shaping security rather than reacting to crises. – Dr Alessio Patalano

British naval facilities in Oman and Singapore will be central to deliver this forward leaning posture as much as enhanced access agreements with key regional allies, notably Japan and Australia. The recent restructuring of the UK defence network around a series of British Defence Staff (BDS) in Africa, the Gulf, and in the Asia Pacific region is also an important enabling step in supporting a forward leaning posture and adequate sourcing should be ensured to deliver on both engagement and support requirements. Logistical support to maximise the effect of capabilities goes hand in hand with the recognition that British action will be integrated with those of major UK partners in the region. The UK will be an integral component of a concerted effort to convene action with actors like the United States, Japan, and indeed European partners with continuous presence in the region like France.

Is the ‘tilt’ of limited resources enough for the UK to make a valuable contribution to the Indo-Pacific? – Dr Alessio Patalano

The answer to this question is difficult but the strategy behind this posture builds upon important experience. From 2018-20, consecutive, and, at times, overlapping deployments by Royal Navy ships did much to address the UK’s prior absence, enabling defence planners to test the requirements for a more persistent presence. The maiden deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth CSG will likely cement and further enhance progress made thus far. The experience of the past three years has been invaluable to provide the Royal Navy with the raw materials to develop a desirable and affordable posture for the region. The Command Paper’s focus on shaping activities – notably capacity building, partnerships management and enhancement, and disaster prevention and response – directly build on recent experience and indicate an understanding of the importance of such tasks. It is notable that the OPVs currently earmarked for Indo-Pacific deployments have received ‘dazzle’ camouflage colour schemes of wartime vintage. This is a tactically smart choice for the theatres in which these ships will be operating because it makes visual detection more difficult. It is also a statement to crew members and external audiences alike that the Royal Navy will be conducting its activities as part of what the integrated operating concept regards as the mindset and posture of ‘campaigns’ in an age of coercion and competition. In this respect, the OPVs and LRGs should be sufficient for a persistent form of Indo-Pacific engagement, albeit one optimised for presence more than combat missions.




The Integrated Review brought about a significant shift in Britain’s approach to the use of military power as a tool of statecraft. Such a change rests on an understanding of the strategic value of a maritime-centric posture. In this respect, the Indo-Pacific tilt represents a manifestation of how Britain views its role in the US-led international order and how it intends to apply its available material resources to sustain and strengthen it. The government’s commitment to increase defence spending is particularly important for the navy as the fleet has been undergoing significant changes in capabilities – especially with the introduction of the new carriers and related assets. Equally important, however, will be the engagement with partners in the Indo-Pacific to ensure adequate support for the available means to deliver on the intended tasks. How far the implementation of the Integrated Review goes will depend, therefore, on ensuring that the maritime shift of British posture is supported by relevant policy action. What is certain is that

Britain has entered a new phase in security policy, one in which the global nature of its international standing will be determined by the use of its maritime posture as a tool of national statecraft.– Dr Alessio Patalano

Dr Alessio Patalano is Reader in East Asian Warfare at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is the Director of the King’s Japan Programme at the Centre for Grand Strategy, specialising in Japanese military history and strategy, defence issues in East Asia, and maritime security issues in the East and South China Seas.


Read the full collection here.

In this story

Alessio Patalano

Alessio Patalano

Professor of War & Strategy in East Asia

Latest news