LONDON — A Labour government would be more realistic about the role Britain can play in the Indo-Pacific, according to the party’s shadow defense secretary.
In an interview with POLITICO, John Healey — who could become Britain’s next defense chief if polls continue in Labour’s favor ahead of a likely 2024 election — said the U.K. under the leadership of his boss Keir Starmer would remain a strong ally of countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
But, he argued, Britain can’t be a strong military force in the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic simultaneously, and said the country needed to fill a “Europe-shaped hole” in its foreign and defense policy.
“Alliances with like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific are important. We can contribute strongly with technology, capability, diplomacy, to the Indo-Pacific, but there needs to be a realism about military commitments into the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “Our armed forces are ill-served by leaders who pretend that Britain can do everything, everywhere.”
His comments come as the U.K. government prepares to unveil a refresh of its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy next week. The 2021 version of that plan set out a vision for a post-Brexit “tilt to the Indo-Pacific,” pointing to the region as the center “of intensifying geopolitical competition with multiple potential flashpoints.”
In the coming days, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is also set to announce how and where his country’s nuclear-powered submarines will be constructed under the three-way AUKUS security partnership involving Australia, the U.S. and Britain.
That announcement is set to be made at an event Monday in San Diego, California, alongside U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Expectation is building in London that it will be a joint U.S.-U.K. venture, with lots of work being carried out by Britain.
Healey said Labour’s support for the AUKUS partnership would be “absolute,” and that his party’s backing would extend to all parts of the security and technology alliance, not just the nuclear-propelled submarines. “There’s a great deal we can contribute without misleading ourselves or others that British military forces are likely to be deployed at scale in the Indo-Pacific area,” he added.
Asked if a smaller British military presence in the Indo-Pacific would lead to difficult conversations with Washington, which is encouraging allies to tilt toward the Indo-Pacific as China deploys more resources in the region, Healey said U.S. counterparts had always shown him an understanding of Britain’s limitations.
“They value Britain for our intelligence, our capabilities, they value the ability to reinforce democratic allies in the Indo-Pacific and they recognize that the British forces are limited in our scale and range,” he said.
‘Most acute threats lie in Europe’
The U.S. will, Healey predicted, “rightly expect” European nations to do “more of the heavy lifting in NATO” after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and he argued that Labour wants the U.K. playing a more prominent role in defining the alliance’s response to Russia and China, as well as preparing for the opening up of the Arctic as the climate warms.
“I think Ukraine reminds us that our first obligations and our most acute threats lie in Europe,” Healey said. “We face long-term Russian aggression that goes well beyond Ukraine. That’s where our priorities for defense must lie, where the threats are greatest: in Europe, north Atlantic and the high north, not where the business opportunities may lie.”
Healey urged the U.K. government to “correct some of the flaws” of the 2021 Integrated Review, pointing to a lack of formal mechanisms to discuss security and foreign policy with the EU since Brexit.
“There’s a Europe-shaped hole in the Integrated Review. Ministers could barely bring themselves to mention the European Union and yet Ukraine reminds us and forces us to recognize that first of all Britain is stronger and more influential in the world when we work with allies,” he said. “That sort of gung-ho, global Britain, going alone in the world presentation of the Integrated Review by Boris Johnson needs to be dialed down.”
Healey confirmed that a Labour government would seek an EU-U.K. pact on defense and security, and said he’s supportive of the British foreign secretary attending EU meetings as a representative of a third country — a possibility rejected by successive Conservative governments.
‘Cost above all else’
Healey, who recently came out against the MoD’s decision to build the Royal Navy’s new Fleet Support warships in Spain, criticized the Conservatives for “too often” prioritizing American defense contracts over partnerships with European firms, putting “cost above all else.”
The U.K.’s Ministry of Defence is currently reducing the number of full-time troops from 77,000 to 73,000 by 2025 — 28 percent fewer than the 102,000 employed by the army in 2010, when the Conservatives took office. But the Times reported Thursday that Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is reviewing the 2021 decision to cut the size of the British army in light of the Ukraine invasion.
Healey accused ministers of making key defense decisions purely on the basis of cost.
“British ministers in the last decade have really sold the pass in the interest of British jobs and British businesses,” Healey argued, calling for U.K. defense spending to be “directed first towards jobs, production and development in Britain.”