US defence secretary questions Britain’s pivot to Asia

UK politics & policy updates

The US defence secretary said on Tuesday that Britain might be more helpful as an ally if it did not focus on Asia, highlighting US concerns that forays by European allies into the Indo-Pacific could weaken defences closer to home.

“We have interests around the globe and we want to make sure that we work together to address all those interests,” Lloyd Austin said in Singapore on Tuesday. 

“[Military] resources are scarce . . . As we look to balance our efforts in various parts of the world, we are not only looking to help each other in the Indo-Pacific but we are looking to ensure that we help each other in other parts of the world as well,” he added. “We [could] focus a bit more here, and […] the UK can be more helpful in other parts of the world.”

Austin’s remarks will come as a blow to the British government, which has sent its new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the region. The ship and its escorts passed through the Strait of Malacca on Tuesday into the South China Sea, waters disputed between China and several of its neighbours.

The choice of the carrier’s first operational deployment was designed to “fly the flag for Global Britain”, said UK defence secretary Ben Wallace ahead of its departure this year. Last week, the Royal Navy confirmed it was to deploy two warships to the Indo-Pacific region permanently. 

US Marine Corp F-35B jets on the deck of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth this month © Roy Assa/AFP/Getty Images

Austin is the first US official to openly address doubts whether deployments to Asia-Pacific are the most efficient use of British military assets. Although Washington has welcomed the UK’s foray into the region, privately US officials have said that they would like to see the UK work more closely with its European allies.

After years of cuts, the British armed forces are stretched. The Royal Navy was unable to provide enough warships to escort the carrier, which is also carrying more US F-35B warplanes than British ones as the UK does not yet have enough of the jets. The Royal Navy originally dispatched four warships and a submarine but had to turn to the US and Dutch navies, who augmented the carrier strike group with a warship each.

En route to Asia, one of the British warships, HMS Diamond, was forced to divert to an Italian shipyard for repairs after encountering engine problems. The vessel was just one of two operational Type 45 destroyers, which were designed to protect the carriers from air attacks. The other four are all undergoing various types of maintenance.

“The government made clear its ambition to expand the UK’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Adam Hug, director of the Foreign Policy Centre, a London-based think-tank. He said that while Britain had strong commercial and political interests there, the government needed “to more clearly articulate where it feels it can add value to the work already being done by allies such as the US and Australia who are based in the region”.

The Biden administration has worked hard to increase co-operation with European allies to counter the growing influence of China. Yet while some security experts believe that European navies sailing through the South China Sea sends a strong signal to China about western unity, there is also a debate about the value of having scarce European military assets deployed so far from home.

France has significant naval deployments to Asia under way, while Germany has also sent a frigate to the region. 

Eric Sayers, an Asia security expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said US allies in Europe had much to offer in terms of countering China but Washington had been too quick to publicly welcome their desire to have more of a naval presence in Asia. 

“It may seem counterintuitive for democracies to shy away from assisting from one another, but the best contribution European countries can make to a global alliance strategy for deterring great powers is to prioritise their finite resources for Russia,” said Sayers, who served as an adviser to US Indo-Pacific command.

“Our American partners have concerns that deployments like this will stretch us thin, and they would prefer us to focus closer to home, such as the Mediterranean and Africa,” said a European diplomat. 

Austin, on his second visit to the region, is due to visit the Philippines and Vietnam later this week. 

The UK Ministry of Defence did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Additional reporting by Stefania Palma in Singapore

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