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HERO IR Essay ;

The Review, Defence and the Indo-Pacific 'Tilt': Constraining and Engaging in the Region

This essay was first published in October 2021, in the second volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: Defence and Security in Focus.

In 1968, Sir Robert Scott, former Commissioner General of Southeast Asia and Permanent Under Secretary of the Ministry of Defence would write ‘…Western Europe is now on the periphery of events. It is neither the centre of world power nor, at present, a source of tension that could erupt with world-wide consequences.’ Whilst debatable in the 1960s, one would be hard pressed not to agree with the prescription for the 2020s. Economically, strategically and normatively, the Indo-Pacific now serves as the focal point of what the future shape of the world, and the role of its constituents within it, should be.

It is for these reasons that the Integrated Review devotes a subsection to the concept of an Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, the only geographical region to receive such unique attention within the document. Indeed, as the paper itself highlights, ‘the Indo-Pacific region matters to the UK: it is critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies.’

However, whilst the reasoning and geopolitical debates around Britain and the Indo-Pacific have been covered in detail, the question remains as to how defence will factor into the UK’s ‘Tilt’. Historically, the Indo-Pacific has a surprising lineage within British strategic thought, particularly regarding matters of security, with many lessons to draw upon. Britain may not be the major military global power it once was, but as a middle power with residual capabilities, the Indo-Pacific offers many opportunities for a persistent, active and helpful European state to carve out its own role, convening with allies and colleagues alike within the region. Helping to shape the future world, as the Integrated Review stresses so keenly, in which Britain is a part of.

The Integrated Approach

Before continuing, it is worth noting where defence sits within the Integrated Review. Whilst recognising that ‘at the heart of the Integrated Review is an increased commitment to security and resilience…’, defence, unlike previous Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSRs), sits as one tool among many available to the state in the paper. It is noteworthy, for example, that in the ‘Shaping an Open International Order of the Future’ section of the Integrated Review, defence is rarely if ever mentioned. Instead, diplomatic leadership, overseas development aid and other corollaries of ‘soft power’ take centre stage. This is not to say defence is unimportant, it sits within its own section alongside the other elements of British ‘hard power’, but it does point to a vision that is important when considering the UK and the Indo-Pacific.

Befitting an integrated approach, defence in the Indo-Pacific can be seen rather as the visible manifestation of a host of capabilities and avenues being used in the region. – William Reynolds

In the wake of COVID-19, efforts by Western nations to safeguard certain supply chains against overreliance on China and concerns regarding future digital freedoms, it is clear that economics and other, less glamourous building blocs of international norms will remain the key concern for shaping the future. More and more, norms of the future will be defined by how the digital, economic, legal and climate spaces are shaped today. This fact is implicitly recognised by the Integrated Review.

However, these substantive, yet in many ways imperceptible, approaches require some harder tools of statecraft. It is here where the integrated aspect is fully realised. Whilst British military means in the Indo-Pacific are a visible commitment of British intent, yet modest relative to the other forces at play, and British diplomatic and economic statecraft is more substantive, yet less perceptible, the combined effect is much greater than the sum of its parts. For middle powers, as I explain below, being seen to act is almost, if not just as, important as the substance behind the action itself. Thus, whilst the ‘softer’ elements of statecraft will likely do the heavier lifting in the Indo-Pacific, as seen through pursuit of membership of the CPTPP, ASEAN Dialogue Partner status and British actions in the UN; these methods are enhanced by the overtly visible British commitment through military deployments. As an integrated whole, they maximise British influence and effect.

The Indo-Pacific in British History: Finding a Geographical Definition

In the 21st century, the British would not see the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ used by a Government until December 2020, followed with the Integrated Review being the first British grand strategic document to conceptualise the region through the ‘Indo-Pacific’. The 2015 SDSR used the traditional ‘Asia-Pacific’, whereas the 2010 SDSR made no reference to a regional conception at all. Nevertheless, despite the term being used, no clear definition, neither geographically nor regarding priorities, has been articulated by the UK. This stands in stark contrast with its European neighbours France, Germany, the Netherlands and even the European Union. This is not inherently an issue; the lack of publicly articulated definition provides a degree of flexibility for British policy. But with the Integrated Review and accompanying Defence Command Paper both omitting specific definitions, it proves difficult to analyse the role of defence in the region from the outside.

However, answers may lie in the past.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for an Imperial power that spent much time and resources ‘East of Suez’, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ in fact predates the 21st century in official British lexicon. – William Reynolds

As explained by Professor Alessio Patalano, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was no stranger to the papers of the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee (DOPC) in the mid-1960s. Coined as a catch all term for British forces deployed East of the Suez Canal – with sub-theatres consisting of the Pacific, Central and Indian Ocean Area – the various papers and meetings discussing a ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy point to a geographical outline in British policy makers minds.

In particular, whilst no exact definition is given – though naturally Southeast Asia and the question of Singapore and Malaysia feature prominentlyit is telling that the final Indo-Pacific paper in 1966 had sub-headings including the West Indian Ocean, East Africa and parts of the Middle East. Such a wide geographical scope would continue into the late 1960s as Britain attempted to establish a four power defence arrangement – consisting of America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – to watch over the region, with a British contribution to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ including the British Indian Ocean Territories and the West Indian Ocean. This would be echoed closely by the Integrated Review, as whilst it did not provide geographical boundaries, it noted ‘we have a long-standing naval presence in the Gulf and Indian Ocean through Operation Kipion’ as part of the Indo-Pacific. This would place British facilities in Kenya and Oman within the Indo-Pacific area.

Moreover, whilst the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ for the British originates in the 1960s, the characteristics of the concept which would be readily recognisable to a practitioner today are much older. Indeed, in 1949, on a fact finding tour from Cairo to Tokyo, Foreign Office Permanent Under Secretary Sir William Strang would note that British officials from the various regions often viewed the area as one connected ‘periphery’ or ‘rimland’ which ‘skirts the Heartland of Europe and Asia which is at present in large measure under Soviet control…’ Such a concept reflected the local practitioners’ appreciation of the connectivity which had sustained empire and was now needed to ‘contain’ the Soviet inner landmass.

As Strang argued in his memoirs, ‘the importance of our [the West] maintaining control of this periphery, from Oslo round to Tokyo, of denying it to Communism and, if possible, of defending it against military attack was brough home to one the further one travelled.’ But nor would this merely be a response to a need for Soviet containment. Indeed, this British practitioner sentiment of connectivity throughout what is now referred to as the Indo-Pacific region can ultimately be traced back to H.J Mackinder, whose division of a connected outer crescent – defined predominantly by its littoral and maritime states – with a continental Eurasian landmass consisting of nations like Russia and China, would sit comfortably with the maritime nature of the Indo-Pacific.

As a result, though the Indo-Pacific is not clearly defined by current British policy makers, history illuminates where defence may focus. The first usage of ‘Indo-Pacific’ was very much in the context of a military debate, defining the what and where for British forces as cost savings were sought ‘East of Suez’. Stretching from Kenya, Oman and Pakistan through to Korea, Japan and the Pacific Islands, the British – both of the Imperial and Cold War varieties – saw connectivity between the various regions as essential. A break in one area would be to the detriment of the others. Echoes of this can already be seen both in British actions and as presented in the Integrated Review.

Politics First for ‘Middlepowerdom’: British Priorities in the Indo-Pacific

For the British, the Indo-Pacific encompasses a number of interests, and ascertaining what will be prioritised will roughly define how the military apparatus would be used in the region. After all, to borrow an overused phrase from a certain Prussian Officer, defence is an extension of policy.

The interests in question however remain hotly debated. Whilst some argue for the economic imperatives of the Indo-Pacific, others prioritise the normative and political interests which face the UK in that region. Above it all, the debate has unfortunately been somewhat ‘tainted’ by the Brexit debate, making dispassionate appraisals hard to come by.

Again, history provides a guide to what the region really means to the UK. Whilst in the 1940s and 1950s the Indo-Pacific – namely Southeast Asia – was of particular economic importance to the Sterling Area, thanks mainly to Malaya’s exports of tin and rubber to America, this would fall by the way-side by the 1960s. By 1964 a DOPC paper drafted by officials would note ‘South-East Asia is of relatively little economic importance to Britain.’ This would continue into the late 1960s, with the 1966 Indo-Pacific paper arguing that though material interests did exist, they were not by themselves ‘large enough to justify the cost’ of the deploying forces in that region at that scale.

Rather, by the 1960s it was for predominantly political ends that the British were so heavily involved in the region. Most of the papers on the topic could roughly be boiled down to three reasons as to why the British remained in such numbers: 1) to assist in the stabilisation and maintenance of the political integrity of the ‘neutral’ Southeast Asian nations from Communist subversion or overt aggression; 2) a moral imperative to support the Australians and New Zealanders as they had done for the British in the World Wars and; 3) perhaps most importantly, to curry favour with the Americans by assisting them in this region in order to gain influence in areas of more importance to the British, like the Middle East and Europe.

Much of this can be translated forward to the present day. Economically, the Indo-Pacific is of more interest to the British if only because of its prospective future as the economic driver of the world. However, one should not push this point too far. As the DOPC officials cautioned their Foreign Office colleagues in 1968, ‘We should not distort our commercial and trading policies for political reasons.’ Membership of the CPTPP, for example, would produce only modest benefits for the British economy in the short to medium term, and certainly would not make up for breaking from the European Union. However, its main benefit is in the political doors it opens for the UK, and this again is where Britain’s priorities lie in the region.

Indeed, it is in the normative and political space that the Integrated Review truly points towards in the Indo-Pacific. As indicated by the Integrated Review, a core policy for Britain is to assist in shaping and safeguarding elements of the international order which are most beneficial to it. A more proactive initiative instead of the traditional status quo, reactive posture. As the centre of international politics, hosting two battling superpowers, several large medium powers and one large rising power, one cannot doubt that the Indo-Pacific ‘will be the crucible for many of the most pressing global challenges.’

Though on the other side of the Eurasian landmass, Britain as a residual power, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and as a middle power has a vested interest in taking part in shaping the future of the region. – William Reynolds

Middle powers like Britain gain much of their power through the international system they inhabit. Acting as ‘good international citizens’ – peacekeeping, maintaining international law and other normatively positive activities – not only garners the UK influence with fellow states, from large to small, which it can then turn to its more narrowly national interests, but it additionally supports the international order as a whole. Due to its services- and trade-led economy, ‘Britain is to an exceptional degree dependent on world-wide stability, orderly change and prosperity.’ Making sure such stability remains in the Indo-Pacific will in turn benefit the wider system, including Britain’s home region. It is here where defence can make its greatest contribution.

Defence and the Indo Pacific: Carrier Strike Group 21 and Beyond

Gone are the days where a ‘reduced’ British presence in the region constituted some 14,000 army personnel, seven RAF squadrons, two(!) strike carriers and amphibious capabilities with the necessary ancillaries. The UK, as noted, is now firmly in the middle power category, especially when it comes to projecting forces into the Indo-Pacific area. That being said, the strategic questions have changed for the British, as have the wider commitments. One does not need vast quantities of force to make an effective contribution, and the British are well placed to take advantage of this in the Indo-Pacific.

Indeed, the UK of today benefits from several defence-related factors which did not obtain in earlier periods: (i) It is now a middle power re-joining the Indo-Pacific, and (ii) as a result it can, for the most part, start from scratch when it comes to choosing where to focus its efforts. Unlike the Britain of the 1960s, desperately holding up defence commitments it found difficult to support or shed, the UK has few defence commitments in the region, and of these, most do not require it to actively commit forces to them. As a middle power, far less is expected of it than in its colonial past. As a middle power, Britain has the flexibility to maximise its contribution and find its ‘niche’ in the Indo-Pacific. Thus, the opening gambit of persistently placing two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) and the future Littoral Response Group (LRG) across the region, harnessed through the small British Defence Staff (BDS) in Singapore, capitalises on the starting flexibility in many ways.

Where defence is heading regarding the Indo-Pacific can likely be traced through the outlines of The Integrated Operating Concept 2025 – William Reynolds

(IOC), published in late 2020. Of particular note for the future of defence was the differentiation between ‘warfighting’ and ‘operating’. Whereas warfighting remains the ‘bread and butter’ of the armed forces, or should in theory, operating pointed towards an attempt to address the problem of persistent competition below the threshold of war through a engaged, forward-deployed posture. Rather than a mere collection of peacetime activities, ‘operating’ provides a campaign like framework, synergising various activities – from capacity-building and state visits to exercises and deterrence of sovereign challenges – with the aim to produce or further specific effects. Within this paradigm, the IOC noted that ‘operating includes the complementary functions of protect, engage and constrain [emphasis added].’ Whilst Protect refers to the more mainstream role of defence, Constrain and Engage are worth a closer look when it comes to defence and the Indo-Pacific.

Constrain: Multilateralising to Deter

Described as the most ‘proactive and assertive‘ element of the IOC’s model, Constrain in essence serves as an escalatory rung in the ‘operating’ model, above the traditional peace-time activities of defence and security. Foreshadowing the Integrated Review, it places emphasis on ‘shaping’ the behaviour of opponents, both overtly and covertly, using deterrence through calibrated shows of force to prevent fait accompli strategies and the opponent from achieving escalation control. Of note for the Indo-Pacific is reference to ‘challenging assertions of sovereignty through deployments and freedom of navigation operations…’

In the Indo-Pacific, whilst this could include any nation, it likely had China and North Korea in mind. Indeed the IOC was one of the first British doctrinal documents to consistently refer to China, alongside Russia, as one of Britain’s main rivals. The Integrated Review would also argue that China was a ‘systemic challenge‘, though it placed Russia above as ‘the most acute direct threat‘ to the UK.

As a middle power, it is well recognised that Britain cannot hope to challenge China in the defence realm alone. However, merely measuring utility of defence through tonnage, number of VLS cells, personnel numbers and airframes ignores the political connectivity that is attached to deployments, and the nature of the environment in which they operate.

Even a vessel as small as an offshore patrol vessel can provide real political value to the local nations, something which they themselves have noted. The addition of more nations, and their respective forces, to the region further complicates the strategic calculus that the Chinese are attempting to make, especially in particularly ‘hot’ areas like the South and East China Seas. For the predominantly non-aligned Southeast Asian nations in particular, the anchoring of ‘security stakeholders such as the UK to the region helps to maintain the balance of power, take the edge off US–China rivalry and expand the region’s strategic options.’ In many ways, the UK approach is simply a return to and modification of old ideas, providing a non-aligned Southeast Asia with options and assurances from the background.

Whilst entirely outmatched in firepower by their likely opposite numbers, a River II OPV, for example, brings with it the top-cover of a European, permanent Security Council member, with all the connected alliances and relationships attached. Undoubtedly Chinese vessels will attempt to bully such smaller craft where possible, as they have been known to do in the past with much larger ships. However, if it were to unnecessarily escalate through purpose or accident, they ‘do so in the full knowledge that there would be international repercussions.‘ British forces, be they aircraft, ships or soldiers, though small in number, would bring with them the deterrent effect of the flag they serve under, and all the relationships associated with it, constraining the options of systemic challengers like China. Below such a threshold, the planned OPVs and LRG are sufficiently suited to posturing with naval and coastguard vessels. Whilst not a full-proof safeguard for the lesser capabilities, it is a form of deterrence not so dissimilar to the past.

Engage: Integrating into the Region

Unlike Constrain, Engage is less assertive, but no less useful, on the escalation scale. Encompassing more traditional military peace-time activities, the IOC mentions specifically the networks between military officials – bilaterally and multilaterally – capacity-building and persistent presence; all with the intention of providing ‘alternatives to the offers of our adversaries, by securing influence and denying it to them.’ The forward-deployed OPVs, garrison in Brunei, facilities in the region, the BDS and uplifted number of defence attaches all speak to the Indo-Pacific component of ‘human networks’, ‘forward-based forces’ and contributing ‘to understanding and insight and assuring regional access’ that form the core of Engage in the IOC.

Indeed, it is in the Engage prism where British forces can truly exert influence as part of a wider British approach in the region. Perhaps even more than great power competition, non-traditional threats remain a ‘top priority’ for Indo-Pacific states, especially Southeast Asian countries. Piracy, terrorism, trafficking of humans and narcotics, natural disasters and matters of bio-diversity like depleting fish stocks all remain core issues both internationally, as identified by the Integrated Review under ‘transnational challenges’, but specifically for the states of the region. The British Army’s new ‘Ranger Regiment’ appears optimised to address such challenges. Moreover, many of these themes come under the prism of ‘maritime security’, a primary job of the maligned ‘under-gunned’ OPVs and a force package similar to what is proposed with the LRG and the Future Commando Force.

When viewed through this prism, current British defence plans have much to offer when placed alongside their civilian counterparts. Working alongside local nations – working with and to their requests being paramount – the OPVs’ natural distinction as maritime security vessels can prove highly effective in Engaging with other navies and coastguards in protecting the bio-diversity, the economic lifeblood of several littoral communities, of the region. Already established efforts like the British Blue Planet Fund point to many opportunities in synergising civil capacity-building with the OPVs in the region. This is aside from guarding Britain’s own extensive maritime reserves surrounding the Pitcairn Islands.

Nor does Engaging in the Indo-Pacific stop with fishery protection. Capacity-building, training, support and networking cover all aspects of the security domain, including Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR). The British are no strangers to providing humanitarian aid in the wake of Indo-Pacific natural disasters, with defence assets – be they the strategic lift of the RAF, engineers and logisticians of the Army or naval platforms acting as hubs – all providing key technical assistance, manpower and visible support in times of need. British forces in Brunei, the planned LRG amphibious platform out of Duqm and the RAF’s aircraft of No.2 Group will all prove flexible instruments of support in this area. Even the planned two River II craft, if they kept the capability of their exported cousins, can carry six ISO containers for rapid delivery of aid.

However, Engage does not simply mean capacity-building and integrating at the maritime security level. Much has already been written on the flagship, both literal and metaphorical, deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth on her European and Indo-Pacific tour (CSG21). But it does highlight another part of the Engage element of the IOC and wider ‘Middlepowerdom’ of the British defence effort in the Indo-Pacific. The first British carrier in Southeast Asia since 2013, and first large carrier deployment in the Indo-Pacific since 1997, consists not just of British vessels and aircraft, but Dutch and Americans too. Even more remarkably, the F-35B component of the carrier air-wing sees the majority consisting of US Marine Corps pilots and airframes.

As a result, though somewhat symptomatic of a still working-up British carrier, the trade off in true sovereign capabilities purchases remarkable ‘convening’ influence for British defence in the area, and a multitude of opportunities for the future. As one of only four European nations to possess a carrier capability, Britain is positioned – alongside France and even, perhaps, Italy – to serve as a centrepiece ‘convenor’ of European defence intent into the Indo-Pacific if the option was ever chosen to pursue a more united European front to the region in the future.

Asides from the aspirational, the proof of concept of American F-35Bs off a foreign carrier provides opportunities for customers of the STOVL variety. Whilst entire squadrons of Japanese F-35Bs on a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier is unlikely in the future, the opportunity for single pilots, and thus further military networking and Engagement, seems more plausible. Moreover, as highlighted by Army, Naval and RAF engagements over the last few years in the region, this does not require the British to provide the set-piece instrument of defence power.

Integrating forward-deployed escorts into local nations’ naval groupings, RAF aircraft supporting exercises and training and British Army personnel working alongside their counterparts all provide opportunities to build upon the Engage aspect of the IOC in the Indo-Pacific. – William Reynolds

To Base or Not to Base: That isn’t Really the Question

One cannot refer to the Indo-Pacific and defence’s role within it without addressing the subject of ‘bases’. Both the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper refer to a ‘Strategic Hub’ system to further Britain’s persistent forward-presence aspirations, with the Indo-Pacific, Oman, Kenya and Singapore specifically identified in the Review and Brunei and Diego Garcia, alongside BDS teams in Canberra and Singapore, noted in the Command Paper. Professor Patalano has referred to such a system as a ‘network of nodes’, with the aforementioned strategic hubs serving as larger pillars to the wider nodal system.

The position of these facilities is advantageous, facilitating forward presence which can greatly enhance defence units in the field. In the HADR prism, for example, the British effort during Operation PATWIN – the British response to typhoon Haiyan in 2013 – benefitted immensely from not only the destroyer HMS Daring and aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious being within the Indo-Pacific region, and thus responding quickly, but the presence of British staff in Singapore. Illustrious would put into Singapore to take on aid flown in from the UK, with Surgeon Commander Andrew Dew noting, ‘the 36-hour logistic stop in Singapore was key to the success of the operation...’ The utility, both in command and control and the forward-placement of stocks, would have found sympathetic nods from the policy makers of the 1960s.

However, Britain should tread carefully, in both language and substance. History casts a long shadow and the colonial past of Britain cannot be shrugged so easily. If the British of the 1960s typified the optics of their presence as ‘neo-colonial’ in Southeast Asia, the same concern should remain today, but in modified form. As commentators of the region note, the concept of Britain ‘basing’ itself in the region will ‘ruffle a few feathers’ locally. There is a reason that the lexicon is shifting from ‘bases’ to ‘Support Facilities/Units’ – such as in Bahrain and Singapore – reflecting both the supportive and cooperative nature of the facility with the host nation and the reality that they are unable to provide the same level of capability as large permanent bases.

Nonetheless, at least in the maritime domain, the deployment of the two River IIs neatly side steps the issue for time being, and points towards a different model for defence in the Indo-Pacific in the early 2020s at least. Drawing on lessons learnt from the regular deployment of a River II and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel in the Caribbean, the planned Indo-Pacific deployment is adopting a more nomadic lifestyle. Along the lines of the aforementioned ‘nodal system’, the vessels will carrying out Constraining and Engaging activities from port to port with no ‘home’ to speak of, supported instead with maintenance and other necessary stop-overs from Singapore, Australia and Japan. An aspiration remains to develop a regional logistics hub, from which a greater degree of persistency can be supported, and Duqm in Oman will host the larger LRG by 2023; but the current ‘Caribbean model’ will go a long way in providing ‘understanding and insight‘ of the region for military engagement. Certainly it provides opportunities to explore additional access agreements with key allies in the region, which would only enhance both the hub and nodal system and convening element prized by Whitehall.

Conclusion: Opportunities and Concerns

In 1964, a ‘Strategy East of Suez’ future policy document noted that ‘we are not dealing with military problems but with a political one’ in the region. The same sentiment can be similarly expressed today. One should always remember that the Integrated Review is not a military strategy. By extrapolation British policy in the Indo-Pacific will not be military-led. However, great opportunities remain for defence to supplement, enhance and visibly embody Britain’s integrated approach to the region.

Through the outlined ‘operating’ posture of the IOC, and the twinned approaches of Constrain and Engage, defence can establish positions where influence, networks and intelligence can all be leveraged to further the Integrated Review’s ultimate goal of ‘shaping’ the future world system – normatively, economically and politically. In many ways, this is not far removed from the goals and, to a lesser extent, the ‘ways’ of the past.

Future Concerns

Nonetheless, there are concerns which need to be monitored as the Review is implemented. The first emanates from the nature of the ‘Tilt’. Though publicly stressed that the recalibration of defence still maintains Europe as the core focus, there is the possibility that procurement of ‘means’ will not necessarily reflect these ‘ends’. The Indo-Pacific is a naturally maritime domain. The Navy has thus done relatively well out of the Spending Review for defence, to both deliver existing commitments and pursue future aspirations. However, Europe, and especially NATO, have always seen political capital linked to land forces. Whether it is the Cold War British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) or the 21st century NATO Enhanced Forward Presence, NATO politics, as an extension of a shared interpretation of what is required to demonstrate Alliance solidarity, continues to dictate Britain having ‘skin in the game’.

The reductions to the Army, both in numbers and ‘heavy metal’ – the traditional measurement of NATO states’ capabilities – risk upsetting the balance, at least in reserve capacity that Britain can bring to NATO. – William Reynolds

It is a debate as old as 1945, if not older, and the risk of a maritime-centric ‘Perfidious Albion’, though extremely overstated, is a characterisation that post-Brexit Britain will wish to avoid.

For the moment this is a concern that has yet to manifest in practice, but it leads to a second challenge: the sustainability of defence efforts in the Indo-Pacific. Deployments like CSG21 are accompanied by much fanfare, and will serve an effective purpose, but the real impact will be determined by what follows. With resources stretched, despite the recent spending uplift, Britain’s ability to sustain its defence aspirations ‘East of Suez’ is a concern shared by informed commentators, politicians and states in the region. Though many assets planned to be used in the Command Paper and the Review already exist or were planned prior – the River IIs, elements of the LRG, the Future Commando Force and the existing facilities – the risk always remains that, if the ‘acute threat’ of Russia increases, or the world situation changes, forces will have to be re-tasked away from the region. 2021 to 2030 is a long time, and as Harold Macmillan supposedly argued, ‘Events, dear boy, events.’

Through to 2030, a future British government might revert to the austerity approach in the wake of COVID-19. It is no secret that friction exists between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister on spending, with the latter’s spending priorities proving unpopular with both the Chancellor and large elements of the Conservative Party. As the debates of the 1960s and the more modern 2010 SDSR show, defence rarely survives intact if spending cuts are contemplated. If the British defence element of the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ is to survive, it must be persistent throughout the decade in order to generate substance.


William Reynolds is a Leverhulme Scholar PhD candidate with the Centre for Grand Strategy in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His PhD research focuses on British Grand Strategy and the role Japan played within it from 1945 to 2020.


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