Does a new Raj beckon for Britain?

Friday 30th September 2011

By Dr Duncan Anderson

In 2004, American journalist and academic Booz Allen coined the term “string of pearls” to describe the chain of port facilities China was constructing in a great arc from Hainan Island across the Indian Ocean to the coasts of Africa. One did not have to be a Mahan or a Mackinder, Allen argued, to recognise a geopolitical power play not seen since the high noon of Western imperial expansion in the last decades of the nineteenth-century, particularly given the rapid expansion of China’s ability to project military power.

Chinese commentators have been quick to reject this thesis. China indeed has a major base of Hainan, but this is merely to project power into the South China Sea, Chinese territorial waters, not to serve as a jumping off point for a drive to Africa. There are purely commercial explanations for each one of China’s projects. And given the importance of trade routes to Africa and the Middle East, what could be more natural than that China would develop ports and airfields in Sri Lanka, and that China should take an increasing interest in the Maldives?

New Delhi takes a less sanguine view. Indian analysts concede China’s need for commercial infrastructure projects, but point to other more worrying developments. The existence of a Chinese ELINT base on Burma’s Coco Island, close by one of India’s missile testing ranges in the Andaman Islands, substantial Chinese military aid to Burma and Sri Lanka, and massive aid to Pakistan, combined with penetration of Nepal, all serve to create a sense of encirclement.

Britain is interested in both China and India. She is still one of the world’s great financial powers, more dependent on international trade than any other developed western economy. China’s importance is exemplified by the prime minister’s recent negotiation of a £1.4 billion deal with China’s president. But India has a significance which places it in an altogether separate category. For more than three hundred years Britain and India shared a common history in which India gave Britain tea, curry, polo and a growing population of hard-working well educated people, while Britain gave India the English language, a remarkably democratic and open political system, a reasonably efficient civil service, and cricket. The prime minister has described Britain’s ties to India as “a new special relationship“, as distinct to the “essential relationship’” with the United States.

It is in the Indian Ocean that the strategic interests of Britain and China might one day become incompatible. Britain has a string of bi-lateral agreements with the Gulf States, which might bring Britain into conflict with Iran, now virtually dependant on China for much of its high technology weaponry. Britain, too, is less than happy with China’s support for the Sri Lankan army’s suppression of the Tamil Tigers. It is also clear that Britain is concerned with China’s reluctance to pressure Pakistan into taking a more robust approach against Pashtun militants. India shares many of Britain’s apprehensions. The result has been a convergence of Indian and British interests; in the last decade both nations have moved cautiously towards the re-establishment of a security relationship last seen in the 1940s.

Since 2004, ships of the Royal Navy and India’s western squadron have been conducting the annual Kolkan Exercise series, which allows the navies to practice common procedures and tactics. This year, for example, British and Indian submarines operated in the Arabian Sea, at the mouth of the Gulf. Meanwhile, on Salisbury Plain, units of the Indian Army took part in a major counter-insurgency exercise with a British battle-group. And for the last eighteen months there has been a number of high-level visits to India from the UK, attempting to broaden and deepen the new relationship. The British are coming not as salesmen after a quick buck; rather they want partnerships which will involve substantial transfers of technology, in areas such as warship design and construction, and the possible sale of some 126 Typhoon multi-purpose fighter aircraft to the Indian Air Force.

History is replete with ironies. Perhaps the greatest irony of China’s phenomenal rise will be the emergence of a second Raj, this time run from New Delhi, with London as a distant junior partner. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that British forces, despite swinging reductions, will operate well to the east of Suez long after a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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