In the wake of the UK’s departure from the European Union, the government’s Global Britain foreign policy strategy is beginning to take effect.
In a paper released today by the Henry Jackson Society, the author Robert Clark demonstrates how this is the case with the Royal Navy’s upcoming Carrier Strike Group deployment, and, crucially, the intrinsic role that the UK Armed Forces will have in shaping the Global Britain strategy going forwards.
The Royal Navy’s upcoming Carrier Strike Group deployment should rightly be heralded as the first tangible demonstration of what a truly Global Britain will look like on the world stage. Significantly, however, whilst the deployment does represent a tilt to Indo-Pacific region, it crucially also represents Britain’s foremost national interest; maintaining a secure Europe.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Robert Clark, a Defence Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Robert can be found on Twitter at @RobertClark87.
There are three central tenants to the Global Britain strategy: ensuring a secure and prosperous European continent; the UK as a force for good on the global stage; and championing free and open trade. This naval deployment manages to assist all three strategic interests.
The need to maintain a secure and prosperous Europe underpins the entire Global Britain strategy. A secure continent, particularly lacking one single hegemonic power, ensures a stability in which Britain has historically thrived, enabling it to develop further interests pasts the continental space. The Carrier Strike Group deployment goes some way to achieving this end. Most immediately whilst sailing through the Mediterranean, the group will take part in maritime exercises with NATO partners across southern and eastern Europe.
In recent years, the Russian Navy 5th Operational Squadron has launched the Kilo class stealth submarines from their bases inside the Black Sea, as they often pass undetected through the Bosporus and into the Mediterranean on the way to Syria, Libya, and the Atlantic. The act of crossing the Bosporus is in direct breach of the Montreux Convention without prior agreement from Turkey – which Russia often does not seek.
Given the nature of this illegal Russian submarine behaviour in the eastern Mediterranean, a special emphasis should be placed on the NATO exercises this summer to include anti-submarine warfare drills. Furthermore, this is something which the Carrier Strike Group is especially adapted to provide, in the form of the Royal Navy’s advanced Type 23 frigates which provide excellent anti-submarine capability. This should be practiced with our NATO allies operating across the Mediterranean to counter the Russian submarine threat.
Whilst reinforcing European security along its first leg, the group will also provide a significant capability ensuring the safe and uninterrupted passage of European trade, through the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Whilst other nations contribute to counter-piracy maritime operations, including off the Horn of Africa and across the Arabian Peninsula, the UK remains the only European power which actively enforces the laws of the sea across the heavily militarised South China Sea.
The Chinese PLA Navy, by some estimates the world’s largest (by tonnage, a crude but still important metric), seeks to increasingly subjugate its neighbours for territorial control over the region’s strategic islands and waterways. This affords a distinct capability for anti-access and area denial to the South China Sea’s crucial shipping lanes, in which approximately 40% of European imports pass through each year.
The Carrier Strike Group is almost certain to conduct freedom of manoeuvre exercises in these waters – likely with regional partners including Australia. The Royal Navy have conducted five Freedom of Navigation manoeuvres through the South China Sea since 2018, second only to the US Navy. These manoeuvres are crucial in upholding the Chinese-contested UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and further enable European security and prosperity through ensuring free and safe passage of vessels transiting through.
The British political and military will to enforce the UNCLOS – unique amongst European powers – not only directly benefits European prosperity (and thus, security), but also readily reinforces the two further tenants of the government’s Global Britain strategy; acting as a force for good on the world stage, and a champion of free and open trade.
As the UK government is about to release the long-awaited integrated review, already distinct and meaningful elements of its foreign policy agenda for a post-Brexit age can be deduced from the Carrier Strike Group deployment.
At one end of the government’s Global Britain strategy, the Indo-Pacific tilt involves a more forward deployed British military presence, demonstrated by the desired persistent presence in the region. Operating alongside key regional allies including the US, Japan and Australia, Global Britain will continue upholding the international rules-based order, acting as a force for good on the world stage.
At the other end of the strategy, the Carrier Strike Group’s deployment is a meaningful demonstration of Global Britain’s commitment to continually underpinning a secure and prosperous Europe, whilst simultaneously supporting allies and partners upholding the rules-based order further afield.
This is a unique capability amongst European powers – and this is what will define Global Britain.