Thu | Sep 19, 2019

Editorial | No to British military base

Published:Tuesday | February 12, 2019 | 12:14 AM

In that quaint phrase of the British, the strain of Brexit, or the shambolic preparation thereof by Theresa May’s government, seems to be driving Her Majesty’s ministers batty, or, at least a little bit unhinged.

So, Gavin Williamson, the UK’s defence secretary, with ambitions of leading the Tories once Mrs May finally collapses, harbours ideas of reversing history and returning Britain to being a great military power.

Mr Williamson’s vision of grandeur would otherwise have been okay, maybe only to be observed by us with a wry smirk, but considered not our business. Except that he has made it precisely that.

Yesterday, in a policy speech in London at the Royal United Services Institute, he talked about establishing a military base in the Caribbean in a projection of “hard power” as part of a strategic re-alignment when Britain leaves the European Union.

“Brexit has brought us to a great moment in history,” Mr Williamson said. “A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass.”

The British minister rooted his analysis in the context of a “resurgent Russia” that was building up, he said, its arsenal; a China that was “developing its modern military capability and its commercial power”; as well as the threats posed by non-state actors such as Islamic State and al Qaeda. Against this backdrop, Britain has to be in a position, and be prepared to, defend its global interests “far from home”.

“In an era of great power competition, we cannot be satisfied with simply protecting our backyard,” Mr Williamson said.

It is in keeping with this new turn of an open display of muscle-flexing that when Britain’s new aircraft carrier, theQueen Elizabeth, goes formally into service next year, its maiden voyage will take it through the South China sea, and, presumably, within 12 nautical miles of the disputed, but mostly Chinese-controlled, Spratly Islands. The vessel, according to Mr Williamson, will carry two squadrons of British and American F-35 fighter jets. China rejects the claims of various Pacific nations to the islands and usually brands as provocative voyages near to them by Western navies, as it did recently when US vessels sailed within 12 miles of Spratly. It is hardly likely that Beijing will take kindly to an aircraft loaded with fighter jets lurking in the area, especially if that vessel has a British forward base somewhere in the vicinity. All this might have been primarily of academic discourse for Caribbean foreign ministry analysts, except that apart from proposing a base somewhere east of the Suez, Mr Williamson also has his eyes set on this region.

“..I believe we need to go further, in considering what permanent presence we might need in areas including the Caribbean and Asia-Pacific to extend our global influence, and our proactive approach shows that we are not getting by on half measures,” he said.

Insurance policy

Britain has a small military outpost in Belize, which, originally, was a kind of insurance policy for the territorial integrity of its former colony and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member, against claims by neighbouring Guatemala. What Mr Williamson has now placed on the table is qualitatively different. Rather than protective support against a specific threat, this proposes a grand geo-political manoeuvre that would fly in the face of declarations by CARICOM leaders, including in their recent statement about Venezuela, of maintaining the Caribbean as a zone of peace. It would place the Caribbean firmly in the cross-hairs of military rivalry. There are suggestions that Mr Williamson is considering either Montserrat or Guyana for his Caribbean base. No one is clear whether he has discussed the idea with any regional government, or governments. Jamaica should say whether it has been approached and what was, or would be, its response.

Further, the matter should be high on the agenda of the next meeting of CARICOM heads of government, after deliberations by their foreign ministers. Mr Williamson’s declaration, too, is another reason for a foreign policy review by Jamaica, for which this newspaper has advocated.