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Britain Builds Permanent Military Base in Middle East


BEIJING --- The British Ministry of Defense recently confirmed that it will launch a permanent military base in Bahrain this month, which has cost it tens of millions of US dollars. It is Britain's first permanent military base in the Middle East since the country withdrew troops from there 45 years ago. 

In modern times, overseas military bases have always been a "bridgehead" for Britain to maintain its overseas interests and control strategic routes, and military base expansion or contraction symbolizes the growth or decline of its global strength. 

Why did Britain leave this "permanent footprint" in the Middle East and how will it affect the local situation? 

A gift from Bahrain 

The new base is a "gift" from Bahrain to Britain, a spokesperson of the British Defense Ministry told the Xinhua News Agency. The office building will be put into use this month while other facilities will be completed next year. Bahrain bears most of the construction cost and Britain only bears a token amount of capital. 

It is learnt that the base, located at Bahrain's Mina Sulman port, can accommodate 600 military personnel at most although the normal operation personnel number will be around 250. 

The base will mainly be used to berth British Navy's destroyers, frigates and minesweepers. The plan to build the base was made public at the end of 2014 and construction started the following year. 

According to British Defense Ministry, the use of the base is still under discussion, but an important purpose will be helping Britain to carry out military operations against the extremist organization Islamic State and preventing "neighboring countries" to obstruct the passage of British merchant ships that transport oil and gas through the Strait of Hormuz. 

Britain said the base will "guarantee its 'strategic flexibility' in the region". 

British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said when the project was initiated that the new base will be a permanent sign of the Navy's expanded space of operations and will allow Britain to dispatch more and larger vessels to enhance the stability in the Gulf region. 

The Strait of Hormuz is a strategic connection between the Gulf region and the far ocean where Britain has tremendous oil and gas interests, as British oil and gas transport ships set off from Qatar and other places and cross the strait every day. 

But the strait is also of strategic importance for Iran. 

Bahrain and Iran haven't been on good terms in recent years. The Shias that take up the majority of Bahrain's population have organized multiple protests against the Sunni royal family since 2011, and the Bahrain government has been accusing Iran of instigating and supporting the turmoil. 

In January this year, Bahrain declared to sever diplomatic ties with Iran. Analysts said that the British military base in Bahrain will balance regional forces, which was a major reason why Bahrain gave such a big gift to Britain. 

Filling in strategic blank 

Building the military base is one of the steps taken by Britain to strengthen the economic and military connections with the Middle East. 

In recent years, Britain participated in the bombing of Islamic State armed forces in Syria, but its current troops in Bahrain are temporary and its facilities there are very simple compared with the US Navy's fifth fleet that maintains a long-term presence in Bahrain. 

James Strong, a research fellow at the Department of International Relations of London School of Economics and Political Science, said the US has shifted its strategic focus from the Middle East to Asia Pacific under its "Asia Pacific rebalancing" strategy, so Britain can fill in the strategic blank left by the US by building a permanent base in the Middle East. 

Britain taking the "initiative to carry some of the burden left by the US" reflected a kind of tacit agreement between the two countries, Strong said. 

However, he didn't think it meant a changeover in Britain's diplomatic strategy. Britain has a colonist history in the Middle East and it is on good terms with some countries in that region including Bahrain. The new base is built because Britain and Bahrain "need each other". 

Strong told Xinhua News Agency that the base in Bahrain is Britain's only military base on the east of the Suez Canal and will enhance its military presence in the Gulf region. Britain will dispatch naval vessels including aircraft carrier to that region sooner or later, which was "decided a few years ago when it decided to set up the military base in Bahrain". Under the background of "Brexit", building the new base consists with Britain's principle of diversifying its diplomatic landscape outside the relation with the EU. 

Zhao Xiaozhuo, a researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, said various parties are making deployments in the Middle East now, including the U.S., Britain and Russia. Britain's permanent military base in Bahrain will in a way contain them and help maintain the status quo in that region. 

More symbolic meaning 

Andreas Krieg, associate professor at the Defense Studies Department of King's College London, told Xinhua News Agency that under the political background of "Brexit", Britain has to maintain its global influence, especially in regions where it has strategic interests. 

Krieg held that in comparison to the American military base in Bahrain, the British base is rather small and cannot berth aircraft carrier, and Britain is unable to dominate the Middle Eastern situation. The saying that Britain will "return to east Suez" is an exaggeration because the military base won't give Britain any cross-regional clout, and its influence won't go beyond the Indian Ocean, let alone the Far East. 

At present, Britain has more than ten military bases overseas, which is considerably reduced considering that it had over 1,000 bases overseas when WWI ended and more than 70 ones after WWII. This means that the military influence of the "Empire on which the sun never sets" is nothing like what it used to be. 

According to Paul Rogers, a famous expert on global security and professor at the Department of Peace Studies of the University of Bradford, although the main task of British troops in the Gulf region is mine sweeping and anti-pirate patrol, the building of the new base will enhance its overseas influence, especially the influence of its navy, but "it has more symbolic meaning". 



(Source: China Military; issued 10.11.2016)

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