It’s not surprising that China isn’t happy that Britain may build new bases in the Pacific.
What’s surprising is that Britain thinks that building a base in Singapore will accomplish anything.
Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson raised eyebrows when he told the Sunday Telegraph that Britain might establish bases in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The Pacific bases reportedly would be at Singapore and Brunei, both former British colonies.
“The bases would have service and maintenance staff, supply ships and equipment sited there,” the Telegraph said. Britain maintains permanent bases in Cyprus, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, as well as Diego Garcia, an Indian Ocean outpost about 5,000 miles from Shanghai.
Williamson said this will mark the end of Britain’s “East of Suez" policy in 1968, the landmark moment when the sun set on the Empire and Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf and the Far East, including Malaysia, Singapore and Yemen.
“For so long - literally for decades - so much of our national view point has actually been colored by a discussion about the European Union,” Williamson said. “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.”
Predictably, China denounced the idea. “It is clearly a muscle-flexing gesture targeting China and shows closer engagement of external powers in the South China Sea disputes,” Xu Liping, a professor at China’s Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, told the South China Morning Post.
Other Chinese commentators accused Washington of being behind the plan. One warned that “it could signal severe challenges ahead in dealing with a delicate regional security balance in the region, with the risk of growing tensions and even partial confrontation.” There are also warnings that hosting British forces could jeopardize Beijing’s relations with Singapore and Brunei.
The better question is what will this accomplish. A British base would certainly benefit the United States, which presumably would have access to the facilities. It would also guard one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Yet it is ironic that Britain is considering a base in Singapore, which is a perfect example of how a military base can become a military disaster. In the 1930s, Singapore was supposed to be Britain’s bastion in the Far East, a fortress that would deter Japanese aggression, or serve as a linchpin for naval and air operations if war did come.
The problem was that during the 1930s, Britain couldn’t afford to station in Singapore the forces—especially ships and aircraft—needed to defend the island while still keeping sufficient forces in Europe. When Japanese troops landed in Malaya on December 8, 1941, and began marching down the Malay peninsula toward Singapore, the lion’s share of British military power was in Europe, keeping Hitler from invading England and Rommel from capturing the Suez Canal.
What kind of forces would be available today for permanent Pacific deployment? The British military is short of soldiers, ships and aircraft, and what they have is often down for maintenance. The British government is already trying to figure out how to pay for a military wish list that the government’s own auditors say would strain the country’s finances.
Unlike 1941, an army—this time Chinese—will probably not march across Southeast Asia to storm Singapore. But should a shooting war erupt between China and whatever coalition faces it, then China would probably attempt to neutralize the military installations with ballistic and cruise missile strikes, and blockade the island with submarines.
A military base is only useful if it can be successfully defended.