In the midst of rising tensions between Russia and the West, Britain has decided to construct new military bases in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean.
The announcement of England’s intent to deploy more overseas military installations came at the end of last month. In an end-of-the-year statement, Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said that two bases would be erected, one in each region, and constitute the first step in achieving for the U.K. “true global player” status. Williamson urged Britons to stop downplaying the country’s influence internationally and recognize that the U.K. will stand tall on the world stage after leaving the European Union. He stated that England’s mid-twentieth century strategy of pulling back from areas “east of Suez” has been scrapped by the country’s leadership.
The U.K. is now to take hold of the opportunity to affirm its role on the world stage. “This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play.” At the time, Williamson did not specify where exactly these bases would be built; however, the locations of Singapore for Southeast Asia and Montserrat or Guyana in the Caribbean are reportedly being eyed carefully.
A World Power Comeback?
Williamson’s remarks were all eluding —not so subtly, one might add— to the tensions between Britain’s imperial past and the country’s more modern face of a diversified liberal nation-state.
It is no secret: Britain has ample experience when it comes to setting up foreign military bases.
At its peak, the British Empire covered over thirteen million square miles of land—more than twenty-two percent of the earth’s landmass. Keeping all of that territory under control meant establishing military infrastructure in the farthest-flung regions of the globe. In a somewhat ironic way, it was worldwide military conflict that brought the Empire down. The financial burden of World War I was the beginning of the end for the British Empire. Japan’s occupation of its territories in the Second World War and the loss of India in 1947, along with the enormous cost of fighting an existential battle against the Nazis, brought the days of the British Empire to a close. England has spent the last half a century “repenting” for its colonialist history. Any global agenda was largely looked at with extreme skepticism within British politics.
So why the sudden change in direction?
Truth be told, the decision for the U.K. to deploy additional foreign bases is not the beginning of a new policy course, but rather the culmination of a relatively old one.
The West as a whole has been forced into a permanent alliance since the days of the Cold War. NATO was perhaps the first step in formalizing this relationship. While communism has since disappeared from Russia, the old anti-Western front of Russia and China is still alive and well. The War on Terror and the spread of Islamist militancy gave an additional dimension to the West’s partnership. Today, thousands of British, French, and American servicemen fight in tandem throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Central Asia, in countries including Syria, Mali, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Granted that Britain is no longer a country with colonialist aspirations. But it certainly does have global aims. And these aims are luckily of a, how shall we say…more “noble” character. Britain’s worldwide strategy from a defense perspective is more or less that of the Western bloc: Keeping Russia and their communist allies at bay and eradicating (to the greatest extent possible) radical militant groups.
In fact, Britain never really freed itself of its foreign military bases. To this day, Britain has no less than fifteen overseas military installations. Some of these facilities are outdated like those of British Forces Germany (BFG), concentrated in the northeastern region of North Rhine-Westphalia. BFG is, simply put, a relic of the Cold War. A 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review of the British government decreed all BFG personnel be recalled by the year 2020.
Some bases are more strategically relevant. The remote Ascension Island base is the site of a joint U.K.-U.S. signals intelligence facility. The Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Al Udeid base in Qatar forms the HQ of British expeditionary forces currently deployed in the Middle East.
The two additional planned bases are simply the latest in Britain’s contribution to the West’s global agenda.
The Inevitable Opposition
Of course, as expected, the planned U.K. facilities have stoked the ire of old foes.
On 11 January, the Russian government condemned the British plans to open new military bases. The official statement from Russia’s foreign ministry even threatened retaliation if its own interests or those of its allies were threatened. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman said that “against the backdrop of overall rising military and political tensions in the world […] statements about the desire to build up military presence in third countries are counter-productive” adding that “In the event of any measures that pose a threat to Russia’s security or that of its allies our country reserves the right to take appropriate retaliatory measures.”
Russia’s opposition to the proposed British bases is actually well founded. For long, Russia has been toying with the idea of re-opening its own Cold War-era installations in the very same regions. Over a year ago, senior Russian officials brought up the re-establishment of bases in Vietnam and Cuba in an effort to offset “U.S. encroachment.” British bases next door would undoubtedly disrupt Russia’s plans of exerting influence and control in those regions.
Although no official objections have been heard from China over more U.K. military presence in Southeast Asia, observers have noted that another base would certainly “antagonize” leaders in Beijing. In addition to the Chinese government reaction, Britain may also have to contend with the objections of locals in potential host countries. Prospective sites in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia are all former British colonies.
The re-expansion of the British military is likely inevitable. And it will almost certainly trigger a range of old geopolitical tensions.