There and Back Again: The Fall and Rise of Britain’s ‘East of Suez’ Basing Strategy

February 18, 2021
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“You can’t repeat the past,” Nick Carraway cautions in The Great Gatsby. The U.K. government today is flirting with that hypothesis as it reestablishes military bases in the Persian Gulf and farther afield. On a visit to Bahrain as foreign secretary, Boris Johnson declared that “Britain is back East of Suez.” His speech was noteworthy in that he justified the return on the grounds that the original withdrawal from the Arabian Peninsula and Southeast Asia was a “mistake.” He claimed that the decision to retrench was taken hurriedly in January 1968 following a currency crisis. Johnson singled out then-Chancellor Roy Jenkins, “who yearned to take Britain into what was then called the European Common Market,” as the driving force behind the drawdown.

Johnson’s interpretation — that Britain’s retreat from East of Suez was taken injudiciously as pro-European politicians capitalized on the United Kingdom’s dire economic position — requires fine-tuning in one sense and overhauling in another. Britain never really withdrew from East of Suez — consider, for example, its involvement in the Iraq War and the Dhofar Rebellion, or the maintenance of its small garrison in Brunei. What is true is that the then-Labour government ended the strategy centered on major bases, namely Aden (located in modern-day Yemen) and Singapore, which were designed for power projection. It is therefore important to distinguish between Britain’s presence East of Suez, which endured, and the basing strategy, which ended midway through the Cold War and is now being reassembled — albeit in modified form.

 

 

More importantly, Johnson is mistaken over the timing and logic of retrenchment. My research highlights an alternative explanation for Britain’s abandonment of its East of Suez basing strategy: The rationale for retaining large military garrisons in the Arabian Peninsula and Southeast Asia dissolved over the course of the 1960s, as policymakers realized that these bases were consuming more security than they could generate. These findings (which are explored at length in my recent article in the European Journal of International Security) have resonance for current British ministers and officials who are mapping a return East of Suez.

The Retreat

By the time of the Labour Party’s electoral victory in October 1964, British forces were spread thinly across the world. The overstretch dilemma was such that the iconic Trooping the Colour ceremony for the Queen’s birthday was in danger of being canceled if one further emergency arose. In Europe, Britain’s NATO obligations included its nuclear deterrent, as well as a pledge to maintain four divisions (55,000 troops) on the continent.

Ministers embarked on a painstaking process of appraising the United Kingdom’s global commitments. Those East of Suez primarily related to the Arabian Peninsula and Southeast Asia. In the former, Britain was responsible for the security of Bahrain, Qatar, the Trucial States (today’s United Arab Emirates), and Kuwait, many of which fueled the U.K. economy with oil. The base at Aden was the keystone of Britain’s presence in the region. Not only was it deemed a deterrent to revisionist powers, but it was also a staging point for the Asia-Pacific.

Britain also maintained a sizable garrison in Singapore. They were engaged in a “low-intensity guerrilla war” in the jungles of Borneo with Indonesia, which was trying to undermine the nascent Malaysian Federation. The conflict, known as the “Confrontation,” would see over 50,000 troops and one-third of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet deployed to the region.

Several months after the election, Defence Secretary Denis Healey distributed a paper to the Defence and Oversea Policy Committee (the government’s central forum for grand strategy), in which he proposed a “major revision” to Britain’s presence in the Arabian Peninsula. The garrison in Aden had become embroiled in an insurgency against an Arab nationalist group, aided by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Trying to maintain order absorbed resources that were meant for elsewhere. Retaining the Aden base was not worth the candle.

The bases in Southeast Asia, meanwhile, would be replaced by a smaller facility in northern Australia for air and naval assets. The Singapore garrison was supposed to be available for operations with the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, but it was preoccupied with the Confrontation and “internal security duties in Singapore itself.” Officials also noted rising political instability in the city and the “strong risk of Chinese political penetration.” Despite its declining military and political value, no changes could be made in the short term. Foreign Office mandarins warned that “it would be obvious to everyone that a British alliance was no longer worth having” if they withdrew before the Confrontation had ended.

Britain’s allies were certainly against any drawdown. Australia and New Zealand regarded the Singapore base as their forward defense. The United States, meanwhile, had its own problems in Asia and valued the presence of another external power. During a meeting with Healey in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was recorded as saying that he “would look with the greatest concern at a diminution of the U.K.’s role.” U.S. forces, he continued, “could not be the gendarmes of the universe” because “at heart, the American people are isolationists.” The White House’s view on Britain’s role East of Suez had flipped under President Lyndon Johnson. The Kennedy administration had been disinclined to support Britain over the Confrontation, as it feared a united Western position would drive Indonesia into the arms of China. By 1964 and 1965, however, it was clear that horse had already bolted. It is slightly ironic that Washington’s volte-face on the British Empire came at a time when London was losing its appetite for commitments outside of the Euro-Atlantic area.

Notwithstanding this American pressure, Healey’s proposals were approved in London. The British withdrawal from Aden was announced in the Defence Review of 1966. Following an abrupt end to the Confrontation later that year, Healey outlined a phased withdrawal from Southeast Asia in July 1967 (to be complete by the mid-1970s). He was ultimately forced to relinquish his idea of a smaller base in Australia. His strategy based on “penny packages” (i.e., a limited deployment, such as a warship, to honor an alliance commitment) was dismissed as tokenism. Prime Minister Harold Wilson judged that “it was not essential that we should have forces stationed in Australia, any more than Australia … had forces stationed in this country in 1914 or 1939.” The basing strategy was at an end.

In November 1967, following months of pressure on sterling, the government took the painful decision to devalue the pound from $2.80 to $2.40. To sustain sterling at its new level, Chancellor Roy Jenkins earmarked the health, education, and defense budgets for cuts. The East of Suez withdrawal timetable was accelerated from the mid-1970s to 1971. This saved little but provided the government with political cover for slashing domestic spending. It was bitterly opposed by Healey and Foreign Secretary George Brown during a series of heated Cabinet debates in January 1968. It was this episode that Johnson focused on during his 2016 Bahrain speech.

Thus, contrary to Johnson’s interpretation, retrenchment was not a snap judgment taken in the aftermath of a currency crisis. Rather, it was a set of decisions that were reached over several years as officials reviewed Britain’s global commitments. Enthusiasm in Whitehall for retaining major bases East of Suez declined during the 1960s as it dawned on policymakers that these installations were no longer springboards for power projection but had instead become resource-consuming quagmires. As Healey explained: “to seek to maintain military facilities in an independent country against its will can mean tying down so many troops in protecting one’s base that one has none left to use from it. The base then becomes a heavy commitment in itself and loses all its military value.”

Many civil servants doubted whether these garrisons advanced Britain’s economic interests. Regarding Singapore, a Foreign Office memo in 1964 noted that “other Western nations trade just as successfully with South-East Asia without deploying military strength there.” A similar assessment was ultimately reached for the smaller bases in the Persian Gulf. At a ministerial meeting in June 1965, Brown assessed that “our military presence was of doubtful advantage to our oil interests.” He later reasoned that “the oil producing states needed us as customers for their oil” anyway.

In summary, the focus on January 1968 overlooks the prior years of assessment, a process that unveiled the declining strategic rationale for retaining sizable military bases East of Suez. (Alternative explanations to this argument, as well as its place in the historiography, are addressed in my journal article.)

The Return

If there were indeed strategic reasons for dismantling the basing strategy, is it prudent to reassemble it today? In response to the political directive of reversing the East of Suez withdrawal, the Royal Navy has proffered the concept of forward or persistent presence, which is reliant on new basing. These facilities are not, of course, on the scale of Aden in the 1960s or many U.S. bases today, but they still embody a significant move for a European power in the 21st century. Within the last five years, Britain has opened a permanent base in Bahrain for 300–550 personnel and secured a long-term lease on docking facilities in Oman.

Although the “return” has largely been a naval affair thus far, it is worth noting that the British Army has opened training facilities, as well as a logistics hub, in the Sultanate, while the Royal Air Force’s 83rd Expeditionary Air Group continues to operate out of Qatar. Further east, the Royal Navy has considered a number of options, including: expanding existing arrangements (the British retained a refueling installation in Singapore after the drawdown in the 1970s); opening a new base; and signing agreements with allies to ensure access to their facilities.

The different types of basing being pursued today in the Persian Gulf and the Indo-Pacific suggest that the British have learned some but not all of the lessons from their prior experiences East of Suez. The establishment of a permanent facility in Bahrain comes with considerable political baggage and may ultimately become a drag on defense resources. The current security environment in the Persian Gulf has, of course, evolved since the 1960s. British officials no longer need to worry about Nasserist-backed Arab nationalists. Yet tensions with Iran pose a threat to British personnel. Permanent bases are an “easy bullseye for an Iranian missile attack,” as the United States and Saudi Arabia have learned to their cost.

There is also a financial factor to consider — every pound spent on maintaining overseas installations is one less for new capabilities. Advocates of permanent bases might counter that they will secure or even boost the United Kingdom’s trade prospects, a key goal of the “Global Britain” vision. Yet policymakers in the 1960s saw no clear link between the two. Their conclusions have arguably been vindicated by the success of British exporters, notably in arms, since the abandonment of the basing strategy.

There is a strong case for a continued British presence in the Persian Gulf today, given that the United Kingdom imports 20 percent of its gas from Qatar via the Strait of Hormuz. Royal Navy patrols could deter Iran from seizing liquefied natural gas vessels (although that is still no guarantee). Yet does this require fixed bases? The Royal Navy’s Armilla patrols protected oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War and in the 1990s without a permanent installation.

A reversion to permanent basing begets significant political costs. In reopening its base in Bahrain, Britain is further aligning itself with the forces of absolute monarchism in the region. When the Arab Spring spread to Bahrain in 2011, it was met with tear gas and bullets. Deepening partnerships with states that have questionable human rights records undermines Britain’s credibility in voicing concerns over Russian or Chinese breaches.

There is also the domestic political angle to consider. The British public paid little attention to Britain’s role East of Suez in the 1960s. Do such deferential conditions hold true today? Is the public aware, for example, that ministers have pledged to Arab leaders that “Gulf security is our security”? The logic of such commitments should be set forth to the British people. Otherwise, public detachment from U.K. strategy is likely to grow, which bodes ill for its long-term prospects of implementation.

Many of the issues outlined above are more pertinent to the base in Bahrain than Oman. The latter enjoys better relations with Iran and is one of the stabler regimes in the region (although this can no longer be taken as a given, following the passing of Sultan Qaboos last year). Oman’s Duqm port has been modified to berth the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers, one of which will sail to the Indo-Pacific this year.

A capital ship may even be based farther east (although it is more likely that an offshore patrol vessel will be chosen for the task) as part of Britain’s “tilt” (as opposed to pivot) to the Indo-Pacific. As of yet, it is unclear what sort of basing will be adopted in the Royal Navy’s forward presence strategy to satisfy this political goal. Britain’s draining experiences with larger, permanent installations in the 1960s suggest that a looser approach would accrue the fewest trade-offs.

There is, however, an even more pressing matter than the selection of basing. Ministers have yet to set out the strategic rationale for the hard power dimension of the tilt. This vacuum has unfortunately been filled, in part, by some rather hyperbolic commentary. Recent polling suggests that nearly 40 percent of the British public is unsure about the arguments for and against the tilt. Separately, only 18 percent of Britons support “deploying UK security and defence resources to contain China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific” (that the question was asked through a China lens is an indication of the current state of the debate). These numbers are concerning ahead of the Carrier Strike Group’s forthcoming deployment. Strategy, of course, should not be conducted by opinion polling but nor can it remain indefinitely aloof from its domestic base. As with the renewed engagement in the Persian Gulf, the logic for hard power commitments in the Indo-Pacific should be articulated and not just assumed.

Policy Exchange, a center-right think tank with close links to the government, has stepped into the breach with two reports, the first of which proposes “a base in Australia and access agreements to bases in Japan.” The second delineates British interests in the Indo-Pacific as: upholding the “rules-based international order”; furthering “the critically-important Special Relationship with the United States”; “expanding UK trade post-Brexit”; and ensuring the “uninterrupted free flow of goods.” “Most importantly,” the report notes, “friendly countries … are eager to see more UK involvement in their part of the world.” It also contains many sensible recommendations on how Britain can play a greater diplomatic role in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in regional governance and on transnational issues such as climate change.

On defense, the second report calls for “reciprocal access and base support agreements with key partners from Japan to India.” The focus on looser agreements, as opposed to permanent bases like Bahrain, embraces some of the lessons from the 1960s. The authors also call for an “uninterrupted, year-round UK military presence” in the Indo-Pacific. Ministers have previously hinted that this is the government’s ambition. It is important, however, to address the trade-offs that would inevitably arise from such a commitment.

First, there is the unavoidable matter of China. David Blagden warns that military deployments that are couched in the language of the “rules-based international order” unavoidably “place Britain within a US-led balancing coalition directed at China.” A persistent U.K. presence in the region — whether it is through a new base or the forward deployment of ships reliant on base access agreements — increases the scope for miscalculation and escalation. Perhaps the government is willing to accept this risk, but it should at least acknowledge the potential consequences that may arise from doing so — both in the region and on the home front.

Second, and more importantly, the Royal Navy may find itself stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread. The idea of basing small numbers of naval assets in the Indo-Pacific has echoes of Healey’s “penny packages” strategy. An offshore patrol vessel or even a warship will likely please allies East of Suez, yet the danger with such tokenism is that it “would be large enough to ‘get us into trouble’ but too small to get us out of trouble once it starts.” In the event of a crisis, Britain might deploy its highly capable Carrier Strike Group (assuming it can arrive in time to make a difference) alongside allied navies in the Indo-Pacific, but this will leave the Senior Service spread thinly elsewhere. Talk of having one carrier group in the Indo-Pacific and another in the Atlantic may be overly optimistic. The escort fleet is at a historic low of 19 frigates and destroyers (not all of which are operational due to maintenance and training), a situation that is likely to worsen in the short term as the Type 23 frigates are decommissioned before their replacements are ready. More worryingly still, the Royal Navy is undercrewed.

Deploying the Carrier Strike Group could put Britain in a perilous position if Russia took advantage of a crisis in the Indo-Pacific to move on the Baltic states. It is important to remember how valuable the group would be to NATO in the High North or the Eastern Mediterranean (alongside the Royal Navy’s wider submarine fleet) in such a scenario. An Indo-Pacific tilt therefore cannot come at the expense of Britain’s commitment to European security.

‘Can’t Repeat the Past? Why, of Course You Can!’

It is understandable that Japan and Australia “would like to see greater UK military engagement” in the Indo-Pacific, just as the Gulf states value the Royal Navy in deterring Iran. Britain, however, should be discerning in evaluating these commitments and balance them against its core obligations. Occasional deployments allow greater flexibility than fixed bases and play to the strengths of sea power. As Harold Wilson observed, the United Kingdom can still be committed to its allies’ defense without having permanent installations in far-flung parts of the world — with all the costs and risks of entanglement that such a strategy entails.

Thus far, the government has been coy about the strategic rationale in returning East of Suez. It falls on those crafting the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy to make the case. Johnson has made some astute hires ahead of what he calls the “biggest review of our foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War.” This author, for one, awaits its impending publication with keen interest.

 

 

Dr. William D. James (@w_d_james) is the Transatlantic Defence Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Centre, where his research is generously supported by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation. William is also a nonresident Hans J. Morgenthau Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s International Security Center.

Image: U.K. Ministry of Defence (Photo by Royal Navy)

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