Royal Navy: A return to the Far East?

In a highly unusual move, the UK is sending three warships to Asia-Pacific in 2018, marking the first time in five years that a Royal Navy warship has travelled to the Far East.

The Royal Navy has a limited number of warships and a large number of commitments that largely confine the surface fleet to the Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Gulf. Whilst it isn’t out of place for a Navy or Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship to steam to Asia-Pacific, it is rare to deploy three in a single year. Such British deployments to North-East Asia have been deemed ‘unprecedented’ since the 1950s Korean War.

So why now?

Ongoing tension in the Korean Peninsula certainly provides impetus for the deployments. The Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson MP, pointedly mentioned North Korea when announcing that HMS Sutherland and HMS Albion would be deployed.

The UK is one of the 16 signatories to the United Nations Declaration that ended conflict on the Korean Peninsula in 1953 and remains a member of UN Command. Richard Reeve, director of the Sustainable Security Programme at Oxford Research Group, argues that taken together with the RAF Typhoon exercises in 2016, “such British deployments to North-East Asia are unprecedented since the 1950s war”. 

Deepening defence relations with Japan is also high on the agenda and is HMS Argyll’s main port of call. As is reaffirming the UK’s commitment to her Five Powers allies: Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. 

The deployments mean the Navy will have an almost unbroken presence in the Pacific this year. The campaign group, Save the Royal Navy suggests this “represents something of a new strategic direction for the UK”.  

Which ships are deployed? 

The three warships are: 

  • HMS Albion: the Navy’s amphibious assault ship embarked with Royal Marines. 
  • HMS Sutherland: an anti-submarine warfare specialist frigate.
  • HMS Argyll: a frigate (to be deployed later this year).

HMS Albion and HMS Sutherland are currently in Japan and South Korea respectively. Their mission is to help enforce international trade sanctions on North Korea – to monitor illegal trading at sea by North Korea. They will also exercise with the navies of Japan, South Korea and US. HMS Sutherland has already visited Australia.  

HMS Argyll will be heading to Australia and New Zealand later in the year to participate in a Five Power naval exercise with New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, before travelling to North-East Asia. The Five Powers arrangement dates from 1971 and allows the participating member states to consult in the event of an external threat to, or an attack on, either Malaysia or Singapore. 

The last time a Royal Navy warship was in the Pacific was the destroyer HMS Daring in 2013. HMS Illustrious was also deployed to the Philippines to help in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the same year.  

Royal Navy ships and Royal Air Force planes to help distribute the aid to remote areas following Typhoon Haiyan.
Picture: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

Looking eastward? 

The Government announced a return to ‘east of Suez’ in 2014, a reference to the UK’s 1968 decision to withdraw its military personnel from the area. However, this pivot is more focused on the Gulf, with a new base in Bahrain, rather than Asia-Pacific.  

Should the Navy be more ambitious? The First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones certainly thinks the Navy should look beyond Suez when it comes to supporting UK prosperity. In 2017, he said: “The Asia-Pacific region contains two of the three largest economies in the world, and five of the largest 16. If the UK does wish to forge new global trading partnerships, this is somewhere we need to be.” 

The Navy is keen to secure export orders for its two new classes of frigates and there are a number of potential markets in South-East Asia. The Type 26, for example, is a contender for Australia’s future frigate programme. 

HMS Sutherland’s Captain, Commander Andrew Canale, said the deployment, “is an opportunity for HMS Sutherland to demonstrate the global reach of the Royal Navy as well as the UK’s commitment to building relationships and maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region”. 

Defence tactics? 

But it’s not just trade relations the Navy seeks to enhance. Defence engagement is a core task of the military and warship visits and joint exercises help burnish relations with allies. Japan is the UK’s ‘closest security partner in Asia’ while the UK remains close to Malaysia and Singapore via the Five Powers Defence arrangements and has long-standing relations with Australia and New Zealand.  

The Government has strongly hinted the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will head to the Pacific in the 2020s: “a powerful sign of our ambition” in the words of the First Sea Lord. However, one of his predecessors, Lord West of Spithead, questioned whether the Navy currently has enough shipping to support a Carrier operating in the Far East, recalling that when he took battle group to Hong Kong in 1997 it was 14-strong (to put that into context, the Navy currently has a total of 19 surface warships). The UK is investing in the Duqm port in Oman to facilitate maritime basing east of Suez but outside of the Gulf.  

Sembawang shipyard, Singapore.
Nicolas Lannuzel/CC BY-SA 2.0

A return to Singapore? 

The First Sea Lord also raised the possibility of permanently basing warships in South-East Asia. Stationing a Royal Navy vessel in the Asia-Pacific region hasn’t been a standing requirement for many years and the Navy withdrew from Singapore in the early 1970s, although the UK maintains a small logistics facility at Sembawang (the British Defence Singapore Support Unit).

The Navy already bases smaller ships in Bahrain and the Falklands. A permanent return to the South China Sea is not on the cards for now but three warships in one year, and the prospect of a Pacific tour for the new aircraft carriers, clearly signals the Royal Navy intends to make its presence felt in the Far East. 

Image: The warship HMS Queen Elizabeth. Copyright: Max Speed/NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)