The war in Ukraine has raised fresh doubts over the will and ability of European states to play a meaningful role in the Indo-Pacific. In the United Kingdom, there is a lively debate over the utility of its ‘tilt’ to the region, first announced in the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. The defence component of this policy, which largely comes under the purview of the Royal Navy, has come under sustained flak from two sides. Some dismiss the tilt as tokenistic, a gesture strategy, and ask why the UK should invest scarce resources in a region so far from home? While others worry that it will distort the UK’s armed forces at a time when core interests in Europe are under threat, in some quarters this tilt is seen as a case of post-Brexit hubris.
This paper by William D. James (King’s College London) explores the rationale and efficacy of small or token defence deployments – with a specific focus on the defence component of the Indo-Pacific tilt. Its arguments challenge the assumption that tokenistic deployments are always a strategically unsound idea. This paper argues that the naval effort in the Indo-Pacific – as currently constituted – will not cause undue strain on the UK’s broader defence efforts in the Euro-Atlantic. Furthermore, and contrary to conventional wisdom, it argues that tokenistic naval deployments can be worthwhile – so long as the objectives are clear, expectations are managed, and they are integrated with allied and partner navies. Finally, the paper offers three recommendations for the Ministry of Defence to better tailor its contribution to the tilt, namely: (1) Enhancing coordination with Europe’s naval powers, principally France; (2) narrowing the geographical and operational scope of naval activity in the Indo-Pacific; and (3) taking a more holistic approach to communications.
Author: Dr. William D. James is an Ax:son Johnson Research Fellow in the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London and a Senior Associate of the Oxford Changing Character of War Centre.
This paper is part of a HCSS Europe in the Indo-Pacific Hub (EIPH) paper series.
The Europe in the Indo-Pacific Hub paper series is edited by Paul van Hooft.