Use it or lose it: Seagoing nations must defend embattled waterways


Great Britain is returning to seaways “east of Suez,” decades after freeing its colonies and withdrawing, more or less, to the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. A warship from Britain’s Royal Navy demonstrated on behalf of nautical freedom in the South China Sea last September, drawing a stern rebuke from China. This month the frigate HMS Argyll joined the destroyer USS McCampbell for six days’ worth of exercises in the South China Sea.

Beijing will doubtless grouse anew.

To say this token of allied solidarity constitutes a welcome development understates matters. All seafaring nations have a stake in freedom to use the sea for mercantile and military endeavors; all of them should help defend freedom of the sea where it is in peril, including the contested Sea of Azov and South China Sea. Britain’s return to Asia thus warrants a cheer from the age of sail, when ships were made of wood and mariners were steel: “Huzzah!”

Britain pulled back from Eastern waters starting in the 1950s for compelling reasons: It had exhausted itself outlasting imperial Germany and the Axis in the world wars, it no longer had to police an empire on which the sun never set, and the United States had taken up the mantle of Western naval and military leadership to wage the Cold War. It only made sense for this weary Titan to set down the too-vast orb of its fate.

Three points about the British resurgence are noteworthy. One, it telegraphs that old fellowships are being made new. By no means are the Southeast Asian maneuvers the first sign of this. London recently established a military base at Bahrain — the seat of U.S. naval power in the Persian Gulf — and plans to build another in Southeast Asia. Director Woody Allen once reputedly proclaimed that 80 percent of life is showing up. The Royal Navy and British Army intend to show up — and stay.

And they are working with longstanding allies with new vigor. Last year the new Royal Navy aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth conducted its first flight-deck qualifications with F-35 stealth fighters. The flattop held its trials while operating out of Norfolk — Virginia, that is, not England. U.S. Marine Corps pilots were among the aviators who landed F-35s aboard ship and took off again.

This marked a leap for the Royal Navy, which has not operated fixed-wing aircraft from carrier decks in years. The sort of “interoperability” displayed off Norfolk — meaning dissimilar forces’ ability to work together — is priceless. It telegraphs allied compatibility and competence in peacetime, putting China, Russia and rogue states on notice that they confront indomitable fighting forces. Interoperability also prepares seafarers and aircrews to execute operations in wartime. The more such maneuvers European, American and Asian navies conduct together, the better.

Two, London’s pivot to maritime Asia admonishes wonks not to get too swept up in the political histrionics of the day. Governments — in particular, military and intelligence services — have a way of working together in harmony even when political leaders feud with one another. For instance, French and American intelligence agencies collaborated amicably during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, when “Freedom Fries” were featured on Congress’s lunchtime menu.

So step back from Brexit, Russian collusion, or whatever political ruckus is emblazoned across today’s headlines. The British and U.S. militaries are professional and overwhelmingly apolitical institutions. They are an implement of policymakers and see themselves as such. That being the case, their mission is to design the military machine tool to carry out the jobs policymakers are likely to assign. They furnish London and Washington with options.