UK’s ‘limited’ Indo-Pacific presence criticised amid fears conflict not far away

A “major” injection of cash, equipment and personnel are needed if the UK is to play any significant role in the Indo-Pacific, MPs have said, with a warning that conflict in the region may only be years away.

Ministers have been warned by the cross-party Commons Defence Committee that the British presence in the region, which has emerged as a potential geopolitical flashpoint amid simmering tensions between the West and China, remains underwhelming.

The MPs warned that a conflict between China and Taiwan could be “a matter of years away”, with the Government urged to prepare for any such eventuality.

Rishi Sunak’s Government has officially labelled China an “epoch-defining and systematic challenge”, but MPs said that officials should now consider whether under the Chinese Communist Party it should be labelled as a “threat to national and international security”.

The report criticises the current “limited” military presence in the Indo-Pacific despite a so-called “tilt” by the Government to the region.

The foreign policy pivot to the region has been among the public priorities of Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in recent months. The Cabinet minister also visited Beijing in August, amid efforts to stabilise ties with the global power.

MPs said: “With only a modest presence compared to allies, little to no fighting force in the region, and little by way of regular activity, UK Defence’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific is far from being achieved.

“If we aspire to play any significant role in the Indo-Pacific this would need a major commitment of cash, equipment and personnel, or potentially rebalancing existing resources.”

The parliamentarians urged the Government to prepare for any confrontation between Taiwan and China, with plans ready in case of any escalation.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly
The foreign policy pivot to the region has been among the public priorities of Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in recent months (PA)

Defence Committee vice-chair John Spellar said: “Maintaining stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific will prove vital for long-term international security, and the security and prosperity of the UK.

“Despite the Government’s insistence that the Indo-Pacific tilt has been ‘delivered’, our report found that the reality falls short of the rhetoric.

“We currently have no real military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific and are unlikely to be able to contribute significantly in the event of hostilities in the region.

“If we are serious about building up our presence – and if we are able to do so without disrupting our commitments elsewhere – we must allocate resources to efforts in the region, alongside our allies and partners.

“China has become increasingly aggressive in its pursuit of dominance, both regionally and internationally.

“It appears that China is preparing to confront Taiwan. In response to this, the UK Government and armed forces must ensure that we are prepared to respond to a variety of potential hostilities, from ‘grey zone’ activities to outright conflict. This needs to be more than just words, and must be treated with focus and urgency.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “We are delivering on our commitment to support a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is a whole-of-Government effort, as set out in the Integrated Review.

“We have Royal Navy ships permanently deployed in the region, a permanent army garrison in Brunei, UK armed forces regularly participating in major exercises in the Indo-Pacific and our UK Carrier Strike Group will return to the region in 2025.

“In addition, our landmark Aukus partnership with the US and Australia and our Hiroshima Accord with Japan, announced in May this year, are all clear demonstrations of our long-term commitment to security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”