LONDON — British naval forces will need to return to the Asia-Pacific region on a regular basis if the country is to forge new trading partnerships in the area, according to the Royal Navy’s first sea lord, Adm. Sir Philip Jones.
“The Asia-Pacific region contains two of the three largest economies in the world and five of the largest 16. If the U.K. does wish to forge new global trading partnerships, this is somewhere we need to be,” Jones told an audience of senior naval and industry officials attending a maritime conference in London a day ahead of the DSEI arms fair, which began Sept. 12.
Jone’s admitted it was an aspiration rather than a policy, “but the fact remains: If we are serious about our nation’s global [post-Brexit] economic ambitions, then we will need a global navy to match.”
The recent establishment of a British defence staff in Singapore is a sign that U.K. defence is starting to consider our options in this area, he said.
Jones would like to take a leaf out of the French book in building presence in the region.
“For a modest outlay of a few forward deployed patrol vessels, light frigates and maritime aircraft based in the region, France has considerable influence in [the] Asia-Pacific [region],” he said.
That sort of presence is unlikely to be replicated by the British anytime soon, however.
The Royal Navy is strapped for warships, and its current 19-strong fleet of destroyers and frigates is already stretched taut maintaining operations closer to home.
The government has said it will grow the Royal Navy fleet, but that may be a while as the new Type 26 and the Type 31e light general purpose frigate, which is yet to be ordered, won’t start replacing the current 13-strong Type 23 fleet until at least 2023.
The limited assets help explain why a British warship hasn’t been seen in the region for four years, which will be rectified next year as Prime Minister Theresa May announced in August that HMS Argyll, a Type 23 frigate, will exercise with allies in the region.
Aside from defense diplomacy, Argyll’s presence will be a timely boost for British efforts to sell it’s new Type 26 anti-submarine frigate to Australia and New Zealand.
China’s growing influence across the Indian Ocean may also require a response.
“It begs the question about whether the Royal Navy’s work in support of U.K. prosperity should end at the Gulf, or whether we need to project to the Indian Ocean and beyond,” he said.
A new joint logistics support base at Duqm in Oman, which will handle the new 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier, could serve as a springboard for more frequent Royal Navy deployments across the Indian Ocean, he told the DSEI conference audience.
The deployment of the U.K. carrier strike group to the region in the 2020s would be a powerful sign of our ambition, Jones said.
“And we still have berthing rights in Singapore. With a growing navy, it would be perfectly possible to base Type 31e frigates in South East Asia, just as we do with smaller ships in Bahrain and the Falklands today,” said Jones.
As the first Royal Navy warship to visit the region in four years, this will be a significant opportunity for defence engagement, but the question is what comes next?
As India discovers the complexities of developing an indigenous carrier capability, the country is looking to the Royal Navy for a closer partnership, including task group level exercises.
Japan recognizes that the U.K. is a maritime nation situated on the edge of a continental landmass, just like them. As they make careful steps toward a more active naval posture, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines are natural partners.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.