A UK Carrier Strike Group led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth set sail in late May for a tour of the Indo-Pacific region. Numerous analysts see this as a sign that Britain — which dominated the world in the 19th century as the “empire on which the sun never sets” — is beginning a “return to Asia” in response to China’s rise. Yi Yong-in specially for The Hankyoreh.
But within Europe, many are taking a dim view of the activities by Britain, a country that has found itself in a political and economic corner since Brexit. Skeptics are asking whether a waning Britain even has the wherewithal to turn its attention to the other side of the globe.
The media reports and the announcement last April by UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace showed the HMS Queen Elizabeth following a grand path that seemed to announce a revival of the British Empire.
The tour itself lasts for six months, beginning in Europe and including visits to 40 or so countries. It is stopping for joint military exercises in India — which had been a top priority in Britain’s 19th-century global strategy — and visiting US allies such as South Korea and Japan to establish a network.
Also on the itinerary are Commonwealth members like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. They are currently weighing whether to sail through the South China Sea, where China is involved in territorial disputes with its neighbors, and whether to pass through the Taiwan Strait.
HMS Queen Elizabeth tour signaling revival of British Empire?
It would not be overstating the case to say that all of the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s activities are focused on the containment of China.
The UK Ministry of Defence has made no secret of its aims, saying the deployment will “help achieve the UK’s goal for deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific region in support of shared prosperity and regional stability.”
Wallace said, “When our Carrier Strike Group sets sail next month, it will be flying the flag for Global Britain — projecting our influence [and] signalling our power.”
According to British media, the country’s global deployment of its aircraft carrier is the first in 40 years since the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982. It signals its aim of rallying forces against China and announcing to the world that British influence and power live on.
The Carrier Strike Group’s muscle is undeniable. Commissioned in 2017, the HMS Queen Elizabeth is one of two aircraft carriers owned by the UK, a 65,000-ton diesel vessel measuring 280 meters in length and built for a cost of £3.1 billion.
Accompanying it in the group are six warships — including two destroyers — a submarine carrying the Tomahawk cruise missile, and 14 helicopters. On board the carrier are eight F35B stealth fighters.
Also taking part in the Carrier Strike Group tour with the HMS Queen Elizabeth are the US Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans — accompanied by 10 Marine F35-10 aircraft — and the Dutch Navy frigate HNLMS Evertsen.
The group’s inclusion of three different countries’ forces, as well as its scale and the duration of the operation, give some idea of how much of an effort the UK is putting into the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s tour.
This strategic expansion by the UK is closely tied to Brexit. It needs to seek out new markets in Asia; internally, it needs a political explanation to justify Brexit to its own public.
The simplest way to achieve that is a pledge to venture onto the global stage, having left behind the “smaller stage” of the EU. This explains why Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been playing on feelings of nostalgia for the British Empire of old, talking about a “new Elizabethan age.”
A UK government strategic report shared in March 2021 offered a rosy vision of the country becoming a “Science and Tech superpower” and promising that the UK “will continue to be renowned for our leadership in security, diplomacy and development, conflict resolution and poverty reduction.”
Another factor appears to have been encouragement from the Joe Biden administration in the US for the UK to actively participate and play a leading role in its various visions as it forges ahead aggressively with its Indo-Pacific strategy.
But in a contribution to the journal “Foreign Affairs” last March, European Council on Foreign Relations research director Jeremy Shapiro and senior policy fellow Nick Witney raised doubts over whether the UK can reemerge as a global force.
The country’s national debt stands at £2 trillion — its highest in 70 years — and rising quickly. The authors shared other research findings showing that the UK’s exports to the EU fell by 40% in January 2021 due to Brexit and predicting that the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) would fall by 6% over the next decade.
UK and China: A close economic relationship
In the long-term, the UK is expected to suffer a serious economic blow if it pushes ahead with its strategy of expansion to counter China. This is because the economic relationship between the two is actually quite close.
As of 2019, China was the fourth biggest importer of UK exports, after the US, Germany and the Netherlands. It’s also the sixth biggest exporter to the UK, after the US, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Ireland.
China’s Jingye Group has acquired British Steel, the UK’s second-ranked steel company, and the renowned football club the Wolverhampton Wanderers is also now under Chinese ownership.
According to a study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Harvard Kennedy School, a total of 120,385 Chinese students resided in the UK between 2018 and 2019 — five to six times the numbers from second-ranked India (26,685) and the third-ranked US (20,120). In effect, UK universities are living off of Chinese students.
Given the UK’s economic capabilities and international standing, Shapiro and Witney appeared somewhat justified in saying, “Concerns over East Asian maritime security and Chinese military capabilities reflect American anxieties, not problems for a medium-sized island power perched off the west coast of Eurasia.”
The UK has previously found itself the butt of international jokes, derided as “America’s poodle” for its deep involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars pursued by the George W. Bush administration.
Historically, overexpansion has led countries to spend too much on armaments and grow their national debt, which is the typical path toward an empire’s decline. It happened to the Spanish Empire, and it certainly happened to the British Empire.
The price of nostalgia can be more painful than we anticipate.
By Yi Yong-in, editor-in-chief of Economy Insight