Recast on the Asian stage?

Unshackled from the EU, the UK is turning to the Indo-Pacific in search of new trade, security and political partnerships.  Humphrey Hawksley  evaluates the potential alliances, benefits and obstacles for post-Brexit Britain

Among the many countries currently examining their policy towards the Indo-Pacific, few have the flexibility and motivation of the United Kingdom.  

Now outside of the European Union, the government of Boris Johnson needs to convince the electorate that Brexit is beneficial and that the vision of a ‘Global Britain’, with an array of new trade deals and political connections, is more than just a slogan. 

These are early days, but Britain’s fractious relationship with Europe is likely to continue for some time while, across the world, doors appear to be opening. 

The Indo-Pacific itself is looking for an impetus that shifts the story from one of a Sino-American superpower clash to one about the modernisation of a rising Asia. Within this, Britain’s own role as a former colonial and now mid-ranking power could be crucial, and at a number of levels that go far beyond trade.  

First, the British government has for some time now referred to its tilt towards the Indo-Pacific because the region is now affirmed as an economic engine for wealth creation.  

It is no coincidence that Britain announced its first significant new trade deal with Japan, which is both a major trading partner and strategic ally with shared political values. With more than a thousand companies operating here, Japan is a major investor in Britain and keen to see it succeed.

Second, although situated in faraway Europe, Britain is applying to join an embryonic Pacific Rim trade grouping, originally conceived during the Obama administration. Under Donald Trump, the US pulled out, leaving Japan and Australia to take up the mantle of leadership. Clumsily named the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), it has eleven members, and the US could well join under a new administration, creating an impressive global trading bloc

ASEAN comprises an important regional bloc with a combined $3 trillion economy

‘It [the CPTPP] would put the United Kingdom at the centre of a network of countries committed to free trade and to the global rules underpinning international commerce,’ International Trade Secretary Liz Truss told the British parliament earlier this year. 

Third, Britain is actively boosting its military deployment to the Indo-Pacific. The Royal Navy has already tested Beijing’s South China Sea sovereignty claims with a freedom of navigation operation around the Paracel Islands, disputed between China and Vietnam. 

Next year, the brand-new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier is due to lead a multi-national force conducting exercises throughout the region with friendly governments, most notably Australia, India, Japan and the US.

These four make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is leading the strategic pushback against Chinese expansion. 

Britain has remained a member of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, one of the few regional multilateral defence organisations. Set up in 1971 to keep peace around the Malay peninsula, the FPDA also comprises Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia and has become more active in recent years to counter Beijing’s South China Sea activities. 

Much will become clearer when Britain completes its current ‘Integrated Review’, the most extensive since the Cold War. The aim is to define the UK’s long-term strategic aims and its role in the world, and the Review is designed to bring together the needs of security, defence, development and foreign policy.

Delayed by the pandemic, the findings will reflect a new joined-up thinking policy adopted in 2018, known as the Fusion Doctrine, which formally interlinks aspects of government, taking into account blurred boundaries that have come about from technology and globalisation. Cyber threats, terror, sanctions and climate change are examples of where one issue dovetails into another.

In 2021, the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to lead a multi-national force conducting exercises throughout the Indo-Pacific region

There is even discussion of how, despite the cost of the pandemic, Britain could continue with its security responsibilities in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and Middle East, whilst also extending into the Indo-Pacific. To achieve this, it is estimated that defence spending would have to increase from 2.1 to 2.7 per cent of GDP.

At a sub-regional level, the government is strengthening ties with the ten-member Association of Southeast Asia Nations.  ASEAN comprises an important regional bloc with a combined $3 trillion economy, ranking fifth in the world just behind Germany and ahead of the United Kingdom.

But here, Britain will need to tread carefully.

Unlike the European Union, ASEAN is not bound by any shared political values and its doctrine is one of non-interference in other members’ internal affairs. ASEAN’s glue is trade.

Western talk about democracy and human rights, the issues close to European hearts such as Hong Kong and China, is likely to fall mostly on deaf ears. British diplomats need to work with governments ranging from Thailand’s military regime to Vietnam’s one-party state, which strikes a note of warning. 

‘Eventually an Indo-Pacific future rules-based order is going to prevail,’ says Dr Son Hung Nguyen of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.  ‘Who makes those rules and what they will be will have consequences to the United Kingdom’s interests.’ 

Next year’s British-led carrier group deployment plans to bring with it warships from France, the Netherlands and, probably, other European countries. Together with the military exercises along the way, it will platform an array of like-minded nations determined to protect trade routes and international law. 

In short, it will be a message to Beijing that China’s moment to re-write the world order has not yet come. 

Britain’s military Indo-Pacific support for the US may help fast-track a post-Brexit trade deal, while Japan, Australia and others are supportive of the UK’s application to join the new CPTPP trade group around the Pacific Rim.

Yes, these are still early days and most developments are happening outside the glare of Britain’s polarised mainstream media. The country remains divided roughly fifty-fifty over Brexit, with economic and social surveys indicating that Britain would be better off if it had remained within the EU.

But it hasn’t, and to succeed now, post-Brexit Britain needs to show itself as muscular, nimble-footed and inventive. Asia could be the place to make it happen. 

Humphrey Hawksley is an Asia specialist and former BBC Beijing correspondent. His latest book is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Indo-Pacific and the Challenge to American Power

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