It might not be a case of Britannia ruling the waves again, but the UK is clearly keen on plotting a course for possible Caribbean anchorage.
A recent article circulating in British press suggesting that the UK government is looking at setting up naval bases in the Caribbean post-Brexit has caused a wave of reaction in one of the possible locations hinted at.
The story which first appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, quoted the British defence minister Gavin Williamson as saying that Britain could establish two new military bases in the Caribbean and South East Asia in a bid to boost its military presence abroad and assert itself as a “true global power” after Brexit.
The UK is currently scheduled to formally start uncoupling itself from the EU as of March 29th this year following the outcome of the 2016 referendum and its controversial and complicated aftermath.
Although Mr Williamson himself did not identify any specific locations, the Sunday Telegraph report suggested the possibilities included Singapore or Brunei in the South China Sea and Montserrat or Guyana in the Caribbean.
Mr Williamson’s Caribbean military outlook for the UK has its supporters as well as detractors, even in Montserrat which was reportedly hinted by one of his officials.
To date there hasn’t been any official comment from the Donaldson Romeo-led People’s Democratic Movement government of Montserrat on the matter.
However, there has been much social media-driven debate on perceptions of the pros and cons of such a possibility for the island which still struggling to regain its economic footing following the devastation caused by the eruption of its Soufriere Hills volcano over twenty years ago.
The once budget-aid-free Overseas Territory is now heavily reliant on UK financial and technical support.
Some supporters for a military base see it as the economic boost that has been evading Montserrat since the eruptions.
Sceptics cite militarisation of the Caribbean and fears of further social disruption locally, with some even raising concerns about neo-colonialism.
This is not the first time this issue of a possible permanent UK naval presence Montserrat or other Overseas Territories has surfaced in recent years.
It came up in 2017, when UK response was being analysed in the aftermath of extensive hurricane destruction on several of the Caribbean Overseas Territories.
Although Montserrat escaped relatively unscathed then, it was nevertheless mentioned as a possible site for a permanent British naval presence in the region, with a main aim of quicker disaster response.
At that time Sir Henry Bellingham, a former minister for Africa, the Caribbean and the Overseas Territories who chairs the UK Parliament's All-Party Group on the Commonwealth, had suggested Montserrat or the British Virgin Islands as possible sites.
But his rationale extend beyond disaster response.
He argued that “if the Dutch and French can have at least about four ships on base in their Caribbean territories at a time, the UK can do better than that.”
Speaking during an interview on the UK’s Channel 4 News alongside Bermuda’s Premier David Burt assessing the British response to the 2017 hurricanes he stated:
“We could even have a permanent naval base in say Montserrat or the BVI that we can actually step-up our presence both in terms of not just this particular relief programme but also in terms of promoting trade post-Brexit, and also making a statement to the six territories that we are actually their partner and their friend for the long term.
He also posited that “there are now different cruise terminals that are deep water anchorages. And actually putting together a permanent naval base whether permanent 60 or 70 marines manning that base gives us a permanent presence (…) which will also absolutely increase and enhance our presence in the region for boosting trade, and also relations with other countries where the Queen is also Head of State and where the UK has great relationships.”
Once outside the EU, the UK will hardly have any alternative but to ‘think global’ by extending its soft-power touch while asserting itself as a leader, or at least a player of note, for economic power and military prowess.
With Brexit looming some slippage is already being reported in its global economic powerhouse ranking from fifth, down to a possible seventh place.
Coinciding with this are renewed signs of strategic global trade, political outreach and global military expansionism by several competing powers, including in the Caribbean.
This is evidenced by intensified diplomatic maneuverings in the Latin America and Caribbean region by Russia and China especially.
These are seen as are more than mere ripples on the surface of a high stakes jostling for position and influence in a new global power realignment.
Once again by sheer force of its critical geographical location, the Caribbean - which has seen its geopolitical status as a zone of interest decline post-Cold War - could again be the playing field, if not stomping ground of competing foreign powers.
This is already taking shape in the backyard of the United States - and very near its front lawn in a sense. The same goes for the United Kingdom and its territorial interests in the region, both post-Brexit and as it reviews its relationship with its Overseas Territories including those in the Caribbean.
The UK looking at setting up naval or other type of permanent military presence in the region, might have more justification - and opportunity - beyond disaster relief, drugs interdiction and the projection of ‘soft power’.
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