My Lords, these ships are present in the region to provide a clear and substantive demonstration of the UK’s commitment to the peace, security and prosperity of the region as a whole, as well as to demonstrate support for the rules-based international system.
My Lords, is that demonstration short term, or do the Government intend to maintain those three ships on station east of the Malacca Straits? The Minister will recall that when a Labour Government decided 51 years ago to withdraw from the east of Suez, part of the argument was that keeping a ship on station east of Singapore required another four naval ships in place to prepare for moving out and so on. We require virtually half of the British Navy to commit to keeping three ships in the South China Sea. If we follow the Foreign Secretary’s promise—as we always do—and send an aircraft carrier with a full complement of support ships east of the Malacca Straits, with aircraft on board the carrier, that would be half of the British Navy already. Probably most of the British Navy would be committed to the South China Sea. Is that really a strategic priority over the defence of our waters and the seas around Europe?
My Lords, Royal Navy deployments are thought about and planned very carefully. They are also kept under regular review. The judgment of Ministers, and, indeed, of the Royal Navy, was that these deployments would fulfil multiple important objectives for UK plc. That remains the case.
My Lords, the noble Earl is well aware of the fact that £4 trillion-worth of trade goes through the South China Sea. We run global shipping from the UK. We are the largest European investor in that region and stability is crucial. The point the noble Lord makes about a lack of ships is absolutely right. Australia—a country much smaller than us and with not as much money as us—has ordered nine Type 26s and we have ordered three. Why do we not go ahead and order eight and get the steady drumbeat that the noble Earl has himself admitted will allow innovation, reduce prices and provide greater productivity? We need to get on with ordering the ships; then they can take their proper place in the world.
My Lords, it is still the Government’s intention to order eight Type 26 frigates, but also, as the noble Lord knows, to order several of the new Type 31e frigates, which we believe will fulfil a multipurpose role. Indeed, they could fit this country for export orders well into the 2040s. While I take the noble Lord’s point about wanting a larger Navy—I am sure we would all like to see that—I believe the Government are on track to see that happen over the medium to long term.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the Government are to continue to have global aspirations and global influence, the Royal Navy must train where, in the final analysis, it might have to fight? The oceanographic and climatic conditions in the Atlantic are not the same as in the South China Sea and the Pacific.
My Lords, it has been made clear and is public knowledge that General Mattis has written to our Secretary of State, stating that as much as he is proud of the association with this country over hundreds of years, he has to say quite seriously that at least 2% is good enough for a regional ally, but certainly not as an ongoing partner in the rest the world. The shortages are so great. Do the Government feel that a lack of an ongoing association after the NATO meeting in a week’s time is in the best interests of this country?
My Lords, I hope my noble friend will appreciate that I cannot comment on a leaked letter. What I can say, I hope by way of reassurance, is that the United States has been, is and will remain this country’s closest ally. It is a vital partner in the NATO alliance. I am quite sure that the United States feels exactly the same way about the integral nature of the NATO partnership.
My Lords, our Prime Minister famously declared in Washington not much more than a year ago that Britain will have to stop acting as the world’s policeman. Bearing that in mind, what is the point of our having a naval presence right around the globe? Russia, China and the USA all wish to have the same. Does that further the cause of peace? Would the Minister agree that we are living in the 21st century and not the 19th?
I certainly agree with that.
I say in all seriousness to the noble Lord that this is not simply about policing. These deployments arise principally from a convergence of tasks and opportunities. A main focus for the Navy in the case of each Royal Navy ship is joint training and exercises with our Far East partners, but there are other important tasks as well, such as international efforts to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions and sanctions on North Korea—which HMS “Sutherland” has been assisting with, for example.
My Lords, no deployments have been abandoned, but one of the expressed aims of SDSR 2015 was for defence policy to be international by design, which includes working closely with our partners and allies. Ultimately, both our allies and the nations in the region will judge the UK by our actions. The deployment of Royal Navy ships shows that we have both the will and the capability to deploy naval power to the region in support of our friends.