Richard Reeve

28 February 2018

Read the primer

UPDATE: This primer was first published in February 2018 and updated in October 2018. 


This primer explains what presence, relations and obligations the UK military has in Asia-Pacific, defined here as the largely maritime region between Hawaii, New Zealand and the Asian mainland.


The UK has rapidly increased its military links with Asia-Pacific countries since 2015, almost half-a-century after it disbanded its large military presence in Southeast Asia. It plans to reinstate a larger and more frequent military presence there in future. Drivers include leverage for post-Brexit trade deals, support for British arms exports, the revived ability to project power via the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers, China’s increasingly assertive posture in critical sea lanes, and the rebalancing of US-allied forces towards East Asia. Crisis in relations between North Korea, the United States and other countries has been a dynamic addition to these factors since 2017.

Key points:

  • While the UK has held no territory in the Asia-Pacific since 1997, it retains a small standing military presence via a garrison and training base in Brunei.
  • The UK has no mutual defence treaties with Asia-Pacific states but has strong defence relationships with Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. Commitments to South Korea and US and French territories are more ambiguous.
  • UK participation in regional military exercises has increased markedly since 2016, including new joint exercises with France, Japan and South Korea.
  • Asia-Pacific is a key target market for UK arms exports and this is a driver of the heightened presence in the short-term.
  • Risks of UK involvement in regional conflict chiefly revolve around territorial disputes in Borneo and the South China Sea, and the possibility of war in Korea. 

Image credit: US Navy/public domain.

About the Author

Richard Reeve is the Director of the Sustainable Security Programme at ORG. He was formerly Head of Research at International Alert and worked as a Research Fellow with King’s College London, Chatham House and, as a Country Risk Editor, at Jane’s Information Group.

Copyright Oxford Research Group 2017.

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