Hong Kong CNN  — 

When the British defense minister revealed this week that new military bases were being considered in Asia, critics questioned whether London has the money – or strategic vision – to carry out such a plan.

But an examination of recent British defense initiatives shows that far from being an off-the-cuff play, a base in Asia would be a logical extension of moves made over the last few years.

Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson broached ideas for a post-Brexit British military in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph.

“This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War,” Williamson said.

“This is our moment to be that true global player once more – and I think the armed forces play a really important role as part of that.”

The British frigate HMS Argyll (center) in October takes part in Exercise Bersama Lima 2018, which also included vessels from the Malaysian, Singapore, Australian and New Zealand navies.

While Williamson said new British bases could be in “the Far East,” defense sources specifically mentioned Singapore and Brunei to the Telegraph.

From a British standpoint, those countries make sense. Both still host small British military contingents – a legacy from the first half of the 20th century, when Britain, then a world superpower, wielded control over both as a colony (Singapore) or a protectorate (Brunei).

And both sit on the South China Sea, where Beijing’s shadow looms large.

Playing by the rules

The Chinese government staunchly maintains that large areas of the South China Sea have been its territory since ancient times. Beijing’s “nine-dash line” extends more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from its southernmost province, taking in more or less the entirety of the waters.

Most other countries consider Beijing’s sovereignty claims unsubstantiated, a view backed by an international tribunal in 2016.

Williamson told the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore in June that Britain would demonstrate its solidarity with the “rules-based system” in Asian waters by sending its warships there – focusing, at the time, on the threats of North Korea.

“We have to make it clear that nations need to play by the rules and that there are consequences for it doing so,” Williamson said on June 3.

But a week later the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit took much of the sting out of North Korea tensions.

And when the Royal Navy’s amphibious assault ship HMS Albion showed up in the South China Sea two months later, it made headlines by sailing near the disputed but Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands in what Beijing called a “provocative action.”

A nod to Washington

Warship movements like that are a regular feature of US Navy policy in the South China Sea, and Washington has been encouraging its allies to join in and ease its burden.

So a new or expanded British base in Singapore – where the US also has military facilities – would surely be well received by Washington, Britain’s No. 1 military ally.

A Chinese-controlled artificial island in the Spratly Island chain is seen in the South China Sea, as viewed by CNN from a US reconnaissance plane on August 10.
CNN's rare view of contested South China Sea
02:43 - Source: CNN

“It is a complementary step to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy and Washington will be pleased,” Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told the South China Morning Post.

As far as security arrangements go, much of the work may be done. The United Kingdom in 1971 signed on to the Five Power Defense Arrangements, a pact that includes Singapore, Austra