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The UK military is planning a major eastern expansion including a "littoral strike group" in the Indo-Pacific and a new permanent base in the Asia-Pacific region, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Monday.
The moves were part of a mission to “increase lethality” and make post-Brexit "global Britain" a reality, he told the Royal Unified Services Institute, a defence and security think tank in London.
But Williamson’s speech came as a new report on global security warned national leaders should act prudently as the world entered a time of instability and uncertainty and a “new era of great power competition”.
In an assertive and patriotic speech, Williamson said Britain “cannot be satisfied in simply protecting our own backyard” and needed to take “action to oppose those who flout international law”.
“It will not always be the role of the traditional Western powers to act as a global policeman but nor can we walk on by when others are in need,” he said.
“To talk but fail to act risks our nation being seen as nothing more than a paper tiger.”
Brexit had brought Britain to “a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality, and increase our mass”, Williamson said.
He warned of Russia’s and China’s growing military capacity in a revival of “state-on-state competition” in “a world of spheres of influence and competing great powers”.
The UK “can learn a lot” from the challenges Australia and New Zealand have faced in terms of China, Williamson said. He said British naval presence in the South China Sea had “led by example” giving other nations the confidence to stand up for their values and also assert rights of passage in the disputed area.
The speech included a shopping list of new defence technology including “swarm squadrons” of drones capable of “confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences” that would be ready to be deployed by the end of 2019.
The Royal Navy would develop a new “Littoral Strike Ship” concept, a floating base for amphibious assaults and crisis support. There would be two Littoral Strike Groups, one based in the Indo-Pacific and one in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic.
The Ministry of Defence would not comment on where the eastern group would be based.
Williamson said Britain needed to use its military bases around the world “to consistently project power both hard and soft”.
That involved “considering what permanent presence we might need in areas including the Caribbean and Asia-Pacific to extend our global influence”, he said.
A government source said no decision had been made on where to put such a base, but they were looking at several options.
In 1968, the UK announced it would abandon its military outposts in south-east Asia and the Persian Gulf, which became known as the “East of Suez” policy. However, Britain has increased its presence in the Middle East in the last decade, expanding facilities at HMS Jufair in Bahrain. It also maintains a military presence in Brunei and a refuelling station in Singapore.
Williamson’s speech was greeted with praise from colleagues but scepticism on the scale of its ambition.
A week ago, UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee assessed that Williamson’s department was £7 billion (US$9 billion) short of affording the equipment that it had already planned to buy in the next decade.
The committee predicted that shortfall could more than double due to “escalating and continuing affordability issues”.
Some criticised the speech’s belligerent tone - one British historian described the speech as “deranged empire porn”.
Labour MEP Seb Dance said the UK government was “full of people who can’t come to grips with the reality of the world”.
On Monday, the Munich Security Conference published its annual report warning of “a reshuffling of core pieces of the international order”.
The report described China as the “more important long-term challenge for the United States”, and Russia “the more immediate security concern”.
“A new era of great power competition is unfolding between the United States, China and Russia, accompanied by a certain leadership vacuum in what has become known as the liberal international order,” former German ambassador to the US, Wolfgang Ischinger, wrote in the report’s introduction.
Analysts and policymakers have called on US allies “to compensate for the lack of stable US leadership”, the report said.
The report warned leaders to move cautiously.
“This new uncertainty means that world leaders carry a huge responsibility,” the report said. “In recent months, [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel has repeatedly referred to earlier periods, in which politicians, believing in the stability of the prevailing order and having not experienced the previous war, thought they could just make a few more demands and act a bit more aggressively – '[...] and, suddenly, the whole order was ruined and war broke out'.
“As Merkel stressed: 'My lesson from this is that in the times we are living in we carefully think about our next steps, that we act prudently, and that we are clear in our language.'
“Unfortunately, these are qualities that seem to be in short supply at present.”
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