Documents to download

In March 2021 the Government set out its security, defence, development and foreign policy and its vision of the UK’s role in the world over the next two decades by publishing: Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy and the command paper Defence in a Competitive Age.

These documents describe a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”. A clear signal of this new intent, and also the Government’s expressed commitment to “Global Britain”, is the first deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier strike group to the Indo-Pacific in 2021.

This paper explores what this means for UK defence, explains the current UK defence presence in the Indo-Pacific and discusses some of the concerns raised about the tilt. It is one of a series that the Commons Library is publishing on the Integrated Review and the Command Paper. 

Why tilt to the Indo-Pacific?

The Government says the UK needs to engage with the Indo-Pacific more deeply for its own security. The review describes the region as being at the “centre of intensifying geopolitical competition with multiple potential flashpoints”.

These flashpoints include, but are not limited to, unresolved territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, nuclear proliferationclimate change and non-state threats from terrorism and serious organised crime.

The use of Indo-Pacific rather than Asia-Pacific is very deliberate in the Integrated Review, according to Dr Lynn Kuok, co-author of the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ (IISS) Asia-Pacific regional security assessment, who says it reflects how India has become a “very important player in the Indo-Pacific mix, and this has a balancing effect in the wider region, particularly vis-à-vis China.”

The impact of China’s military modernisation and growing international assertiveness within the Indo-Pacific and beyond will, the Government says, “pose an increasing risk to UK interests.

The review describes the Indo-Pacific as being of increasingly geopolitical and economic importance over the next decade. That much of the UK’s trade with Asia depends on shipping that goes through maritime choke points in the region is also highlighted.

Risks and opportunities of the tilt

The new approach involves some risk and has prompted some discussion on the merits of the tilt. That the UK is stepping into a militarily congested space is one concern. Some suggest the UK should focus more on the Euro-Atlantic area and worry the armed forces will be stretched too thinly. Others have welcomed the UK’s commitment to the region, particularly by those concerned by China’s military might.

What does the tilt mean for defence?

The Defence Command Paper explains how defence will contribute to the wider tilt to the Indo-Pacific:

  • Increase our capacity building and training across the Indo-Pacific, delivered through longer and more consistent military deployments and by better leveraging our existing regional facilities.
  • Maximise regional engagement as part of the Carrier Strike Group deployment in 2021.
  • Increase our maritime presence in the Indo- Pacific region through the deployment of Offshore Patrol Vessels from 2021, Littoral Response Group from 2023 and Type 31 frigates later in the decade, including to uphold freedom of navigation.
  • Make a bigger and more consistent contribution to the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA).
  • Pursue closer defence cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states.
  • Guarantee our regional access through existing UK bases, including the British Indian Ocean Territory, access to allied facilities, and the development of an enhanced training facility at Duqm, Oman.
  • Deepen and expand defence industrial relationships in the region, including with Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea and India, underpinned by co-operation on science and technology. We will also enhance our programmes of exercises, exchanges and capability development with these key partners.

Existing UK bases and facilities

The UK has a relatively minimal permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific. The UK has long had a naval facility in Singapore for visiting warships and in 2018 opened a new facility in Oman to support naval deployments outside of the Persian Gulf. The UK has both naval and airfield facilities in Bahrain and Qatar. Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean also provides a potential support option. 

The army’s main presence is in Brunei, home of the jungle warfare school and a permanently stationed infantry battalion of Gurkhas.

The review, and subsequent ministerial comments, do no suggest plans to significantly expand the UK’s network of military bases in the region. 

The AUKUS partnership

On 15 September 2021 Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US President Joseph Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a joint statement announcing the creation of an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” called AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States).

A major part of the agreement is for the three countries to begin consultations to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered (not nuclear-armed) submarines. The initial scoping phase for this part of the agreement will take 18 months:

The development of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines would be a joint endeavour between the three nations, with a focus on interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit.

The statement also announces plans for further collaboration to “enhance our joint capabilities and interoperability.” These will initially focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities.

Documents to download

Related posts