The Empire Strikes Back: Post-Brexit Britain’s Return to East of Suez

Brexit has far-reaching implications, affecting not only Britain's economic, social, and diplomatic relations, but its security and defense capacity as well. Yicheng Zhang argues that despite the UK's recent steps toward increasing military commitments in the east of Suez, a "global Britain" strategy may be untenable in the long-run. 

Yicheng Zhang
February 08, 2019

In January 1968, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that the United Kingdom would permanently withdraw its troops from the “east of Suez.” The UK abandoned its military bases in the Middle East and Southeast Asia soon thereafter. Historians later marked this event as the official end of the British Empire. Half a century later, Britain is reversing their policy, shifting back to the east of Suez. Earlier this month, UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson revealed that a new overseas base was under consideration in Asia, with Singapore and Brunei the prime candidates. If all goes according to plan, this could be the first permanent British military outpost in Southeast Asia since their withdrawal in 1968. After almost half a century of absence, British strategists are once again looking east to secure the country’s future.

The UK’s increasingly assertive role in the Middle East and Southeast Asia constitutes military deployment and defense cooperation. Britain already has an active military presence in the Gulf, playing an indispensable role in the Iraq War and in the campaign against ISIS. Last April, Britain opened a new naval base in Bahrain, marking its first permanent base east of Suez in fifty years. This base is capable of accommodating the Royal Navy’s state-of-the-art HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft-carrier. In Oman, Britain held the Saif Sareea 3 exercise last October, which was its largest exercise in nearly two decades. During the exercise, Williamson announced that a new training base in Oman would be open by March 2019.

Military ties in the broader Asia-Pacific region are growing as well. Last October, a joint war game took place between Britain, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand. The UK government discussed plans to deploy HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Pacific alongside the Australian Navy. The UK conducted several freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea last year, sailing warships through disputed waters. Military cooperation with India and Japan has also been flourishing.

To Brexiteers, UK’s return to the east of Suez is proof that the country, without the “shackles” of the EU, is striving to become a “Global Britain.”  Williamson cheerfully remarked during his interview, “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.” At a time when Washington’s leadership is in doubt, Britain’s east of Suez strategy is welcomed by its allies in the region, who worry about the implications of an increasingly assertive China and an expansive Iran. Britain’s return to the Persian Gulf and to Southeast Asia is complementary to the US Indo-Pacific strategy and helps ease Washington’s burden.

Military cooperation is also more valuable in post-Brexit Britain. As business and trade ties are cast into uncertainty by Brexit, the UK will increasingly rely on military cooperation to nurture relationships with foreign countries. Behind Britain’s growing military outreach is an economic rationale to promote the British arms industry. Britain’s defense sector is one of the few areas where the country still has a cutting edge, making it the world’s second largest arms exporter from 2008 to 2016. Demonstrating British warships and jet fighters in action certainly helps sell them to emerging markets in Asia.  

But two important questions threaten to fundamentally undo Britain’s return in the east of Suez: is Britain still capable of maintaining a meaningful role in the region? How does British national interest benefit from military presence in Asia? Undermanned and underfunded, UK armed forces are woefully overstretched. The public spending watchdog describes the military’s current procurement plan as “unrealistic” with a projected £15-20 billion shortfall over the next ten years. A decade of austerity has serious consequences on the military’s combat capability. Since its latest round of budget cuts in 2010, manpower has dropped by 30,000 and the army was forced to cut one brigade and a third of its tanks and artillery. With a historic low of 19 surface combat ships, the Royal Navy is “way below the critical mass required for its mission,” according to the parliamentary defense committee.

Without enough escort ships of its own, the Navy might be forced to operate the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers only in conjunction with allies. With a shortage of 8,200 personnel, the military is losing more troops than it can replace. Last year the government decided to eliminate the five-year UK residency requirement, allowing any foreign national from a Commonwealth country to serve. Perhaps former Chief of Defense Staff Lord General Nick Houghton best summarized Britain’s military predicament in saying, “We have slightly deluded the public that we have a defense program which insiders know is unaffordable. We are to some extent living a lie…it might be [that] the UK should cease to be a world military power.” With the economy dragged down by Brexit, it’s unclear how the UK can retain its current military capability, let alone a ‘global reach’ in the east of Suez.

It is also worth reflecting on how a military return to the east of Suez will complement UK foreign policy. Frederick the Great once said, “He who defends everywhere defends nothing.” A feeble and overstretched global military presence is equal to no presence at all. After the fall of Singapore in the Second World War, a classic example of military overstretching, UK policymakers should have experience with this principle firsthand. The new strategy in Asia does not help address Britain’s main security threat: Russia. Putin is waging complex hybrid warfare against NATO by combining irregular warfare, espionage, electoral interference, cyberwarfare, and the spread of disinformation. Military deployment in the east of Suez will stretch thin resources that ought to be devoted to Europe, all the while failing to address pressing Russian threats.

In a world reshaped by 21st century globalization, the marginal return of pure military operation is increasingly diminishing. A global military presence would only be meaningful if it were complemented by other components of foreign policy: trade, foreign aid, cultural exchange, technology cooperation. Otherwise, Theresa May’s “Global Britain” is nothing but a hollow phrase. It’s hard to see how the government, preoccupied by EU Brexit negotiations, will have time to implement such a global vision. Even if the UK reaches a deal before the March deadline and avoids a no-deal crash-out, the government’s attention will be preoccupied with handling other Brexit consequences for years to come: finalizing the technical details of the deal, determining the future status of EU citizens in the UK, renegotiating trade deals with almost every major economy in the world, finding a long-term solution to the Irish border problem, to name a few.

In the event of a disorderly Brexit or a no-deal Brexit (both of which are still highly possible), May’s minority government will almost certainly collapse and the opposition Labor Party, led by far-left Jeremy Corbyn, will have a high possibility of winning a snap election. A renowned pacifist, Corbyn is critical of foreign intervention and wants Britain to abandon nuclear deterrence. It’s hard to see how a Corbyn premiership would support greater military presence in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Britain’s 1968 decision to retreat from the east of Suez was prompted by financial limitations, military overstretching, and new changes within domestic politics. The struggling economy, struck by the 1967 devaluation of the Sterling, could hardly afford continued presence in Asia. UK troops in the Middle East and Southeast were too thinly-stretched to counter the nationalist and communist threats in the region. The then-newly appointed Chancellor Roy Jenkins was adamantly against further military commitments in the east of Suez. While undeniable that post-Brexit UK might have a new chance to play a greater role in Asia, the above factors still apply and likely make Britain’s return in the east of Suez untenable. It may be unwise to expect the Empire to strike back any time soon.

Yicheng Zhang is a sophomore at Tufts University, majoring in International Relations (with a focus on International Security) and History. His research interests include the study of imperialism and colonialism, as well as 20th century war and conflict. He is the Logistic Director at Tufts Sino-US Relations Group Engagement and Tufts Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services.