It Looks like Britain Wants Its Navy to "Pivot to Asia"

Michael Peck

Key point: London wants to be able to fight a war in the Pacific, but it is unclear if they could be ready for such a conflict.

The Pacific Ocean does not exactly bubble with happy memories for Britain. In December 1941, Japanese torpedo bombers sank the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse off Malaya. In early 1942, the Japanese captured eighty thousand British soldiers at Singapore.

Already overstretched fighting the Nazis in Europe, Britain couldn’t do much in the Far East during World War II. For almost a century, America has been the big stick in the Pacific.

So why is Britain vowing to send its military muscle to the Pacific?

Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, recently told a Washington think tank that Britain will send aircraft carriers to the Pacific once they become operational in the 2020s. Four Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters, which arrived in Japan in October for joint exercises, are scheduled to fly over the South China Sea.

“Certainly, as we bring our two new aircraft carriers onstream in 2020, and as we renew and update our defense forces, they will be seen in the Pacific,” Darroch announced. “And we absolutely share the objective of this U.S. administration, and the next one, to protect freedom of navigation and to keep sea routes and air routes open.”

Naturally, Beijing warned that these moves could threaten relations between China and Britain.

There are two questions here. The first is technical: What exactly does Britain think it can accomplish militarily against China? The Royal Navy is now down to just nineteen destroyers and frigates, and is phasing out its antiship missiles, leaving British warships to slug it out with cannon like the Grand Fleet at Jutland in 1916. The Royal Air Force is shrinking, and the British Army has fewer infantrymen than were killed on the first day of the Somme in 1916.

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