By blindly following Washington, London risks shooting itself in the foot

Shen Jiru

On February 11, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said the UK intends to send its latest aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the South China Sea in a display of “hard power.”

He argued that the UK should prepare to intervene against countries that “flout international law” such as Russia and China, backed up by new military technologies and capabilities.

This is not the first time the country has tried to intervene in these waters. London recently conducted its first joint drills with Washington in the South China Sea region. 

Last October, British Royal Navy forces vowed they would assert their rights to navigate in the South China Sea despite China’s provocation claims, the Financial Times reported.

As the former world power on which “the sun never sets,” the UK has had to relinquish the seat of global hegemony to the US since the 20th century, albeit unwillingly.

To show that it is still a great power, the country keeps asserting its exceptional relationship with the US while supporting its latest actions.

As the UK faces an uncertain future post-Brexit, London is especially eager to validate its position on the global stage. Thus, supporting the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy is a good plan.

The South China Sea was once calm and tranquil, but the US has disturbed it under the banner of freedom of navigation, and the UK has joined in. London’s moves are ignorant and unwise as the UK is neither qualified nor able to do so.

Williamson’s words are a manifestation of his overestimation of the country’s power. Deploying military capabilities involves an enormous expense, and will only further consume the nation’s strength and harm others without benefiting itself. Following the US footstep in this latest move to disturb calm waters is unfavorable to world peace and development, nor will it enhance UK’s international reputation.

London may pay a heavy price due to Brexit. Economically, it already has to pay tens of billions of euros to the EU and will lose preferential policies regarding trade with the EU members. Diplomatically, it could become Europe’s new orphan. 

“As we leave the European Union… it is up to us to seize the opportunities that Brexit brings. We will build new alliances, rekindle old ones and most importantly make it clear that we are the country that will act when required,” said Williamson.

London expects to maintain its special relationship with Washington, while establishing new military bases in Asia. But I believe its ambition to “build new alliances and rekindle old ones” is merely a delusion.

The best thing for the UK would be to strengthen external relations and focus on domestic development.

First, London should maintain multilateral cooperation with other countries, rather than stirring up trouble around the world. It is very unwise of London to set itself against Asian countries, especially with China.

Second, Britain may face a rather complicated domestic situation considering the national secession risks due to disputes in Northern Ireland. Hence it should invest its limited budget reserves on domestic development.

In fact, opinions are divided inside the UK. Michael Clarke, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, questioned whether Williamson “will be able to get the support of the rest of the government, his fellow ministers, in this forward policy.”

The UK economy grew by just 1.4 percent last year, its lowest annual figure in six years and 2019 estimates put the number even lower. In this context, if London insists on increasing defense spending and sends troops to Asia, it may find itself in hot water in the near future. As a result, I believe such dissenting opinions will gradually gain the upper hand.