Lessons from the Falklands applied to the South China Sea

 

Guest piece written by Alex Calvo, MA student at the University of Birmingham, specialising in WWII.

Tuesday 2nd October marks the beginning of UoB’s War Studies seminar programme, weekly seminars by guest speakers on a wide range of topics.  Fittingly, this year’s programme begins with an anniversary piece on “2 PARA Falklands – 30 Years On”, by Colonel (Ret’d) David Benest.

At first glance this topic seems to be of most benefit to those in the history and military spheres, however I would argue that this lecture would also be of interest to students pursuing degrees in other fields.  There are a number of strong reasons why students interested in international relations, geopolitics and defence and security, particularly in relation to East Asia, should pay attention to lessons learned in the Falklands conflict.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the successful liberation of the Falkland Islands after their invasion and brief occupation.  It is therefore an excellent occasion not only to thank the troops who took part in Operation Corporate, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but also to reflect on some of the lessons from the war both at the military and at the political-diplomatic levels.  Although relatively short, the conflict was complex in many ways and even today there is ample scope for further research.

Flag left behind by 2 Para after the battle for Goose Green

As students of war we are not only interested in the past, although that by itself is often a powerful motivation to pursue our discipline, we are also keen to identify lessons to prevent, or if necessary to prevail in, future conflicts.  In the words of Mahan, “the great warrior must study history”. Although no two actual or potential conflicts are identical and as a result comparison and analysis must be approached with caution, the study of past wars provides a solid foundation to interpret current and future conflicts.

This brings us to East Asia, a region far away from the South Atlantic but which has this summer been regularly on the news due to a number of incidents and a high degree of tension, which at present shows no sign of abating.

 

The question I would like to address is as follows:  Are there any areas in which the study of the 1982 Falklands War may help us shed some light on the current developments in East Asia?  The following three points show instances where lessons from the Falklands may be applied to current events.

1.- The dangers of appeasement.  In the 1970s, successive British administrations sought to negotiate with Argentina while coercing the islanders to admit closer links with that country.  The Shackleton report, which made clear that the economy of the Falklands could thrive if some key investments took place, went unheeded.  In addition to this, many islanders were deprived of full British citizenship and it was announced that the only permanent naval presence, HMS Endurance, would be withdrawn.  Buenos Aires took all of this as a sign of diminished interest and evidence of weakness.  It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that the original code name for the invasion was “Goa”.

In the case of the Senkaku Islands, successive Japanese governments have banned their own citizens not only from settling on the land but even from visiting.  Calls to build basic infrastructure such as lighthouses and fishermen’s shelters have also been rejected.  This year Tokyo Governor Ishihara proposed to buy three of the islets from their private owner in a bid to develop them, but the national government preempted his move and purchased them.  However, their proposed policy of keeping the islands undeveloped in an attempt to appease Chinese popular opinion, backfired.  Beijing viewed this deliberate inaction as a sign of weakness, and a wave of popular unrest has followed.

2.- The key role of other powers. In the case of the Falklands, the Argentine decision to invade rested significantly on the assumption that Washington would press London not to react.  Similarly in East Asia one of the key issues being considered by Beijing is Washington’s reaction to a shooting war in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, a landing on Taiwan or a blockade of the islands.  In the South Atlantic, the United Kingdom had Chile as an ally, whereas in East Asia most countries are at odds with China, including India, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  Security and defence alliances among maritime democracies are gradually becoming stronger but they still suffer, in the cases of New Delhi and Tokyo, from the failure of these two countries to conclude a civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

3.- The growing significance of asymmetric maritime warfare. Although it was HMS Sheffield and Atlantic Conveyor, both sunk by air-launched Exocet missiles, which attracted the most attention at the time and remain widely known, the case of HMS Glamorgan, hit by an Exocet fired from the shore, provides us with a powerful reminder of the scope for small, mobile, camouflaged vehicle-mounted cruise missiles.  Although the enemy improvised its launch from a fixed position, current technology makes it easy to deploy these systems in a way which makes it difficult to detect and destroy them.  As Taiwan becomes increasingly unable to keep up with Chinese military modernisation, a number of experts are advising Taipei not to try to compete head on with Beijing but rather to develop systems able to withstand a massive initial air attack.  These systems would ‘survive to fight another day’ and would be capable of inflicting significant damage on an invading or blockading force while awaiting the anticipated international response.

 

It is therefore clear that there are parallels between the two situations, and it is important to bear these in mind when looking at Japan, Taiwan and China’s options in the coming months.  Another piece relating to the topic by Alex will also be published in the next week.

 

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