According to the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, the Caribbean and South East Asia are regions that might soon receive new permanent British military bases. Guyana and Montserrat in the Caribbean, Singapore and Brunei in South East Asia are reported to be the possible locations.
In late December 2018, Britain’s Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, declared during an interview that the Government is looking for two new permanent military bases in the Caribbean and South East Asia. The plan for these bases is supposed to be part of an effort to make Britain a ‘true global player’, especially after Brexit. Bearing in mind that the country has more than fifteen different kinds of military posts overseas, these new ones would certainly enhance even more Britain’s expeditionary capabilities.
However, the location of these new outposts is crucial to see real increments of British military presence and influence abroad. The costs of these projects are also a crucial question that the British Government must consider, especially when the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is facing pressure from HM Treasury for more savings.
The possible sites for a new base in South East Asia are reported to be Singapore or Brunei; both countries already have different levels of British military presence. In short, Singapore is home of the Naval Party 1022 (NP1022) which is responsible for handling the British owned and funded naval logistics support and repair facility based at the Sembawang wharf. The NP1022 is also a symbol of British commitment to the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). Established in 1971, the FPDA includes the UK, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia and is the result of a series of multi-lateral defence arrangements between the five nations, whereby the members are committed to consult each other ‘immediately’ in the event of an armed attack on any of the five powers. Despite that, there is no commitment to intervene militarily.
Beyond the British presence in Singapore, the UK maintains a foothold in Brunei. The British Forces Brunei (BFB) is centred on a light infantry battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. The No. 7 Flight Army Air Corps of Bell 212 helicopters support the land forces. The personnel based in the country are available to assist the Sultan but are also used for deployments overseas along with other elements of the British Armed Forces when needed. In return, the Sultan pays to support the British presence in the country. Britain’s personnel in Brunei – including civil servants of the Ministry of Defence – is roughly 2,000 and goes back to 1962 when they were used to support the Sultan against a rebel uprising. The British military presence is renewed every five years since Brunei’s independence from Britain in 1984.
Furthermore, Brunei is an essential training area for the British Army with the Jungle Warfare Training School being necessary to acquire the survival and effective skills required by the Jungle Warfare Division. Brunei’s tropical climate and terrain is one of the few training areas of its kind to be continuously open to the British forces alongside Belize, and more recently, Sierra Leone. According to the British Army, the military presence is not concentrated in one site, ‘the Brunei Garrison consists of three sites’ with training, basing and support services. So, the British presence in Brunei is not just a ‘token’ force to display Britain’s commitment to a close Commonwealth nation, it is also one way to improve the military capability of the British Army, making it an ‘effective, adaptable fighting force’.
In spite of the British withdrawal from the Far East – and later from ‘East of Suez’-, the country maintained its interests in the region. Brunei is the best example that Britain is willing to maintain a continued presence in Southeast Asia even after the independence of Malaysia and the devolution of Hong Kong. Moreover, as the region is the flash-point of tensions between China and the West led by the United States, the British position in Brunei has been one of increasing relevance.
Therefore, a ‘new military base’ in Brunei would not be something entirely new, but it would reinforce the British presence and commitment to this friendly Commonwealth nation and other regional allies, leading to further co-operation in the realms of Defence and beyond. It is worth mentioning that the discussion about a ‘new military base’ in South East Asia is not about the British ‘returning’ to the region, the UK never left it. It is a question of playing a more active role.
The Caribbean, in its turn, has been distant from the Ministry of Defence’s priority list of regions. This fact came into light when the 2017 hurricane season struck the British Overseas Territories in the area and the Government’s response was initially criticised. The critics emphasised the lack of a permanent military base in a region with five British territories; not including Bermuda, that is technically part of North America. In contrast, the French and Dutch held permanent bases in the Caribbean. France alone has a commitment of roughly 1,000 troops in Martinique.
However, Britain has a training facility in Belize, a Commonwealth Realm in Central America, and the British territory of Montserrat has a long-standing locally raised defence force. The Royal Montserrat Defence Force was established in 1899 and has become a volunteer force, primarily concerned with ceremonial duties and civil defence with around 90 active personnel.
Similarly to the prospect of a new base in South East Asia, two possible locations were revealed in the region: Montserrat and Guyana. The latter is a former British colony that achieved independence in 1966. Although technically located in South America, the country is geographically, culturally and economically closer to the Caribbean than to the rest of the continent, especially when considering the ‘Southern Cone’ – the most prosperous macro-region of Latin America, which includes Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and the southeast of Brazil – as the economic and political ‘heart’ of the subcontinent.
The prospect of a permanent British military base in Montserrat and Guyana raises different considerations. Montserrat would provide a safe political site for Britain, as a British territory the scenario of an abrupt or undesired cancellation of defence agreements is out of question. So, a permanent presence is granted as long as it is proved necessary. Furthermore, the Island would benefit economically from the influx of investments for the new military infrastructure. The permanently based personnel would also prove to be a necessary stimulus to local commerce. In the long run, the economy of Montserrat could become more diversified and less dependent of Britain; Montserrat has been suffering economically since the Soufrière Hills volcano became active in 1995, effectively turning more than half of Montserrat into an ‘exclusion zone’.
A Commonwealth member-state, Guyana has a vast rainforest that covers roughly 80% of the country. This environment is ideal for training exercises like those that already occur with British troops in Belize. Moreover, Britain has a long-lasting relationship with Guyana; this is reflected in the areas of trade and defence equipment. In 2017, Britain ranked as Guyana’s 7th largest export destination and 6th in its import origins. British defence equipment is used by the three branches of Guyana Defence Force (GDF), especially the air wing and navy. The British share of the naval branch is mainly represented through ‘GDFS Essequibo’ a River-class minesweeper – former Orwell (M2011) of the Northern Ireland Squadron.
Guyana’s territorial borders with Suriname and Venezuela are the most persistent source of concerns for its leaders. The claims laid by Venezuela over ‘Guyana Esequiba’ go back to the days of British rule and were put under international arbitration in 1897, two years later the Tribunal ruled largely in favour of Britain. However, the dispute was renewed when Guyana was granted independence in 1966. When the exploration of Guyana’s oil reserves in the disputed territory begun in 2015, the tension with Venezuela reached new heights.
Considering that roughly half of the country is subject to Venezuela’s territorial claims – and its territorial integrity has been contested since before its independence – a military base could serve as a display of British commitment to Guyana. This could work similarly to Britain’s deterrent position in Belize towards the threats and territorial claims of Guatemala, where the British military presence reassures Belize – a close ally – that the country is not alone. This position would enhance British relations with a friendly nation, and could became the basis for a new long-lasting defence co-operation.
A permanent base in the Caribbean could serve as one way to ensure that the British Overseas Territories would have quick and efficient support when needed. Both Guyana and Montserrat could fulfil the role as the site for this new military outpost. The Caribbean is home of five British Overseas Territories with more than 140,000 British citizens, their defence and foreign relations are responsibilities of Britain, therefore, a permanent military presence in the region is not only part of ‘Global Britain’, it is part of the British Government’s duty to defend the Realm and its dependencies overseas.
The four mentioned options have unique traits and challenges. Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory with an economy devastated by natural disasters, and Guyana is an independent nation seeking partners abroad to support its territorial integrity and economic development. Singapore, a well-developed city-state, is part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements and a close British ally. Brunei is one of the closest allies of Britain ‘East of Suez’, its position as the base of Britain’s last permanent land forces in the region and training area is extremely relevant. In the other hand, the UK is expected to be prepared to support Brunei against an expansionist China; not mentioning the British role as a political ‘stabiliser’ for the Sultan.
Therefore, while new bases overseas would enhance Britain’s ‘global reach’ – as desired by the Defence Secretary -, the British Government ought to consider the different kinds of commitment the country will face with the proposed new permanent military presence in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.
Going ‘global’ is an exercise of prudence and brings as many questions as it solves, only with a clear strategy will the new bases overseas will bring benefits to Britain’s global objectives.