Sunday, 3 September 2017

Looking East - the growing defence relationship with the Asia Pacific region

With the announcement that the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) has conducted its 6th nuclear test this weekend, the world once again has its attention drawn to the far east and its potential for nuclear stalemate. Last week the UK Prime Minister Teresa May visited Japan, and made announcements on the deepening of bilateral defence links, while senior UK military officers once again visited the Republic of Korea (ROK).

The UK finds itself engaged in this region, but also more widely in collaborating with both Japan and the ROK. The purpose of this article is consider these links and try to understand why the UK is deepening its engagement with nations thousands of miles away and what do we bring to the table?

The UK’s engagement with ROK goes back to the 1950s and the Korean War, when over 1000 UK personnel were killed over three years operating as part of UN Forces. This bloody, often forgotten war saw brutal fighting occur and served as a wakeup call for rearmament to commence across many NATO nations. Following the Ceasefire the UK removed its ground forces, although some articles maintain that for many years there was a practise of sending a platoon out from Hong Kong to man part of the De Militarized Zone (DMZ) – but Humphrey can find no reference of when this ended.

To this day the UK Defence Attache remains a 1* posting, and the UK plays an active part in the UN presence on the peninsula. There is a growing depth of engagement between UK and ROK forces, with a number of exercises occurring in the last few years involving both Army and RAF assets, coupled with a high level of defence engagement (including multiple 4* visits). In the UK system, being able to secure multiple 4* officer visits to a single country in a short space of time indicates just how important that nation is to your wider security policy, and its clear that the ROK is increasing in importance. At the same time, there is a growing two way industrial engagement between the two countries, with the ROK operating both Lynx and Lynx Wildcat, whilst the UK has chosen the ROK to build the 4 ‘Tide’ class tankers currently entering service for the RFA.  

Tide Class tanker under construction in Korea

The Anglo-Japanese relationship has blossomed in recent years, again following a period of relative decline. While there is only a small number of UK military in the country, based primarily in the Embassy, the UK continues to enjoy port access as part of the UN mandate in Korea (hence one reason why Tides are visiting Japan) and there is a growing collaborative relationship. The Typhoon was a serious contender for the recent Japanese fighter competition, while the Japanese P1 Maritime Patrol Aircraft was reportedly in contention (and rumoured to have been the favourite of some RAF staff) for the recent UK MPA contract. There have also been a lot more visits and exercises between the UK and Japan recently – for instance a deployment by RAF Typhoons and support aircraft.

It is clear then that the UK maintains a close military relationship,  and aspires to make it even closer in some areas with both of these nations, but why and what value does the UK bring to this relationship?

Why work with the UK?
Both Japan and the ROK rely on the USA as their primary security partner of choice, and have tens of thousands of US personnel based in their respective territories. There is no doubt that both countries would always look to Washington first for support, assistance and security in the event of a major external threat. But, there is also a desire in both countries to look beyond the prism of the US to find other partners who can perhaps relate more easily to their situation.

The challenge Japan and ROK face in working so closely with the US is simply that they are very small players in the relationship. For all the lip service paid, it is not a relationship of equals, and the US will bring an overwhelming level of military capability to any exercise or operation, that neither Japan or the ROK can hope to emulate. By contrast the UK is very much a ‘peer partner’ – technologically on a par with the US, but also able to relate to the challenges of possessing smaller forces and deploying on a similar scale. One comment candidly made to Humphrey is that one reason both ROK and Japan like working with the UK is that they are treated as genuine partners, not merely token participants.

The UK has a globally focused security policy and is willing to look beyond its home waters. It recognises that some threats need to be countered ‘downstream’ involving deployments outside of traditional areas, and it recognises that working as a player in a coalition, and not in isolation is the way to achieve this. These views chime with policy makers in Seoul and Tokyo, who see the UK as facing similar challenges and issues to themselves, and recognise genuine opportunities to work together as equals.

This is perhaps most vividly demonstrated in the Middle East where the UK, Japan and ROK all operate a permanent military presence built mainly around naval capability. All three nations contribute to the Combined Maritime Forces, a 31-nation organisation led by a US 3* (Cdr 5th Fleet) but whose deputy for the CMF role is an RN 1* (the UK Maritime Component Commander). Both Japan and the ROK provide escorts for their own shipping and to tackle wider counter piracy duties in the region. Japan has also invested heavily in sending Minesweepers too, which have worked closely with the RN and USN force based in Bahrain to help keep the Gulf free from the mine threat.

On a daily basis the Middle East sees UK and both ROK& Japanese ships, aircraft and personnel working together operationally to support international security. The benefits to all three countries are clear – it is vital that the three great chokepoints in their area (the Suez Canal, Bab-Al-Mendeb and Straits of Hormuz) remain open for merchant shipping – closure due to piracy, terrorism or conflict would do enormous damage to all three economies.

RAF Typhoon in Japan

The UK and Japan have built a particularly close relationship in this area, and earlier this year when the Japanese commanded one of the CMF Task Forces with a 2* Admiral, an RN OF5 was the Chief of Staff and a number of RN personnel were embedded across the TF HQ in a truly joint Japanese led, UK supported effort. This reflects the high demand from Japan to work closely with the UK on operations in future. Building closer links to Japan and the ROK therefore helps protect our own national security in the Middle East. As both countries take on a more confident role globally, the UK will be well placed to advise, assist and hopefully export capability to them to help improve their operational capability.

In the Asia Pacific region the UK remains an influential player on issues such as North Korea, in part due to its wider diplomatic presence. It is often forgotten that the UK has an embassy in Pyongyang, allowing HMG to see the country daily and provide observations on what is going on in the ‘hermit kingdom’. This presence alone is seen as being of real value to many of the UKs allies, who genuinely place real value on the UKs ability to deliver messages directly to the DPRK regime.

This diplomatic presence (which few other nations have), coupled with the legacy of UK military engagement on the peninsula and the enduring reach of UK military to deploy to the region means that while it is not a massive player, the UK continues to exert more influence than some may realise. For example the RAF has routinely deployed aircraft to conduct nuclear ‘sniffer’ missions in the aftermath of tests in the region. As a P5 member of the UNSC, the UKs diplomatic influence is valued, as is particularly is the perception of its means to influence a diverse group of allies, including Washington. Many nations value their access to the UK as a means of shaping and influencing thoughts elsewhere – there is a view that the UK gets taken seriously by some nations in a way some other nations do not. Working with the UK helps those nations get their message across indirectly.

What does the future hold?
The future of UK engagement in the Asia Pacific region looks brighter now than it has done for many years. The significant growth in bilateral engagement between Japan and also ROK in region, coupled with growing experience of operating together in the Middle East has gone a long way to strengthen these ties.

The UK will never supplant itself as the primary partner of choice to either country, nor will an unlikely version of NATO emerge due to the ongoing simmering tensions between both ROK and Japan over the difficult historical relationship. But the UK can offer itself as a partner of choice, a partner who understands the challenges of being a smaller player with a larger coalition partner and help to be a bilateral partner who is a genuinely trusted friend.

Joint RN/JMSDF operations in the Gulf

Moving forward, the UK has an excellent opportunity to develop and thicken its relationships with both countries, and take defence and security co-operation to the next level. This doesn’t mean we’ll see permanent RN detachments in the Asia Pacific region, but it does mean we’ll likely see things like more regular joint exercises, more regular deployments by aircraft and occasional ship visits. The Middle East, being a convenient ‘half way house’ represents the location where the bulk of co-operation will probably occur. Its realistic to expect to see more joint staffing of CMF Task Forces, and regular exercises between vessels in the region.

The fact that the UK will have access to excellent basing facilities in Bahrain, coupled with more limited facilities in Duqm, Oman is also likely to be of real interest to both Japan and the ROK as a means of sustaining their own vessels. The UK’s long experience of deployed operations and sustaining forces at distance will be valued – particularly as neither ROK or Japans navys have a recent tradition of long distance task force deployments like the RN does – as they grow, the UK is well positioned to advise and assist.

Overall then regardless of the situation in DPRK, the UK currently has a fantastic opportunity to work with Japan and ROK to deepen our mutual relationships and to help become a preferred partner of choice for international security issues. The benefits and rewards of this are potentially enormous, providing they are grasped and handled properly. Exciting times ahead, but hopefully not interesting ones!


  1. You missed the potential for closer defence industrial links but other than that this is a good piece.

  2. A news report on the Japanese TBS TV station made similar points this weekend. They also counterpointed the fact that whilst they could do noting to help with the integral operations of a US CVN, it was possible they could do so on a QE CV.