Britain and France pledge greater military engagement, but action needs to follow commitment
European security leaders and officials attending the IISS Shangri- La Dialogue in Singapore over the weekend appear to have made fresh commitments to a greater military engagement in upholding Asia's security foundations.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has hinted at a future increase in Britain's military presence in South-east Asia by the end of the decade, while French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has raised the possibility of a coordinated and more sustained European naval presence in the region.
But while these statements are indications that Europe is increasingly attentive to flashpoints such as those in the South China Sea, it will be some time before commitments are translated into action, and quite a while longer before Europe regains its former role as a major security provider in Asia.
Britain is one European country paddling hard to catch up in South-east Asia, after years of heavy military deployments in the Middle East and Afghanistan. British officials deny that this amounted to a strategic neglect of Asian nations. The British have concluded a strategic partnership with Japan and have a thriving military exchange with South Korea. Defence memorandums have been inked with Vietnam and strengthened with Singapore. The network of British defence attaches in Asean nations has expanded. And extensive British-Japanese air manoeuvres are planned for November.
Still, appearances matter as much as facts; Britain's courtship of Chinese investments, coupled with the lavish reception given to Chinese President Xi Jinping in London last year and London's deafening silence over developments in the South China Sea have all contributed to the impression that the British no longer have a strategic stake in Asia.
It is this impression which Mr Fallon wished to dispel by suggesting that, once his country's two newly built aircraft carriers are operational, one of them could be deployed in Asian waters. But that's unlikely to happen until 2020 at the earliest. And while an aircraft carrier's task force packs a big punch, Britain is not considering establishing any permanent new military bases in Asia. So, at best, British military presence in the region will be noticeable, but not notable.
Politically, the French are in a better position, for one of the hallmarks of President Francois Hollande's approach was to aim for more presence in Asia. Close defence ties with Singapore and Malaysia were supplemented by recent defence contracts with India and Australia and a more robust political dialogue with the region's countries.
At first sight, Mr Le Drian's suggestion that his country will urge other European states to coordinate naval patrols in order to ensure a "regular and visible" European presence and uphold freedom of navigation rights in the disputed South China Sea sounds ingenious: coordination may mean an almost permanent European presence and could also reduce logistical costs, as smaller European navies rely on support bigger counterparts could provide.
But the French proposal would have carried more clout if it was the outcome of a prior confidential consultation between European countries before Mr Le Drian raised it in Singapore. In fact, discussion between Europeans on such topics are in their infancy so, at least for the moment, the French initiative is more about projecting France in a flattering light than about European power projections.
Besides, as Mr Le Drian knows only too well, the list of potential participants in such a scheme is severely limited: less than a handful of European states have any interest or capability to send ships for laps through the South China Sea.
The Europeans now accept that what is happening in the South China Sea affects their own security. And they know that if Europe is to continue to be taken seriously by the United States, Europeans must also be seen to be contributing to US security concerns around the world.
True, times are changing. Germany is now reassessing its global military posture, and so is the European Union (EU) as a whole. But at least for the moment, the Germans are concentrating on beefing up their military presence on the soil of their Central European neighbours, while the EU struggles with even articulating its regional foreign policy ambitions.
In her speech at last year's Shangri-La Dialogue, Ms Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief, did not mention directly the South China Sea issue even once.
All of this suggests that, as welcome as the British and French current initiatives may be, they are far from concrete. Still, intentions are significant, for they underline a profound and durable change in European perspectives. The Europeans now accept that what is happening in the South China Sea affects their own security. And they know that if Europe is to continue to be taken seriously by the United States, Europeans must also be seen to be contributing to US security concerns around the world.
In that sense, therefore, the pledges heard from the British and the French are well-meant. They just need to be followed by deeds.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2016, with the headline 'Security in Asia gets Europe's attention'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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