Britain returns to the Indo-Pacific

Weighing anchor off Europe and being carried on a tide towards Asia

John Hemmings

Government and governance, Trade and industry, International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, South Asia, The Pacific, The World

18 December 2018

Alongside negotiating its relationship with the European Union, the British government has been developing naval and military connections in Asia, John Hemmings writes.

To outside observers, the UK seems to be imploding in a self-inflicted domestic debate over its relationship with the European Union. Despite this unfortunately-accurate representation of the situation, British foreign policymakers across Whitehall have managed to quietly and miraculously effect a major transformation in the country’s foreign policy posture.

Long-fastened to the Continent by the requirements of the Cold War, London has once more turned its attention to Asia, and while its efforts – such as its naval deployments and military exercises with regional powers – are unlikely to change the balance of power in the region, they are changing perceptions.

Like many liberal democracies, the UK has been on the back foot since 2014, with Moscow and Beijing challenging the rules-based system using a combination of sharp power, military coercion, and diplomatic assertiveness.

In the wake of its annexation of the Crimea, Russia has ramped up its proxy war against Ukraine, breaking its commitments as laid out in the 1997 Russia-Ukraine Treaty and attempting political assassinations on British soil.

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China’s reaction to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 has been to carry out a global public relations campaign on the issue, while hastening its island militarisation. In many ways, this is more central to the security of the West since the South China Sea comprises one-third of global trade and is the primary corridor for Europe-Asia trade. Up to 12 per cent of the UK’s trade transits the corridor.

In some ways, the development of a ‘Global Britain’ strategy has come at an opportune time for British policymakers. In the wake of China’s increasingly assertive strategy in the South China Sea and its bolder ambitions across the Belt and Road, regional states have welcomed London’s new engagement.

The swift adoption of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ framework by the UK government in its Global Britain strategy belies the difficulty that it presents to some parts of the UK foreign policy establishment, who remain concerned about it being perceived as part of a containment strategy of China. Nonetheless, since 2016, the Prime Minister has used ‘Indo-Pacific’, while both Foreign Secretaries – Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt – have done so too. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and Trade Secretary Liam Fox have also followed suit.

Usage of the Indo-Pacific construct has allowed British policymakers to adapt to the realities of regional geopolitics. Aside from these, there are strong economic and diplomatic drivers for the UK to be fully engaged in the region.

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For one thing, the greatest growth over the next two decades will take place in container trade between East Asia and the Middle East. The region’s purchasing power will rise eight times between now and 2030, leading to what one report called “urbanisation and industrialisation on a gigantic scale not seen in human history”. The doubling of the global middle class will occur predominantly in the Indo-Pacific, with a strong requirement for infrastructure, services, and trade.

A ‘Global Britain’ seeks to develop free trade agreements across the region, including potential deals with Australia and India, and roll-on existing agreements with Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam. In July, Theresa May’s government also announced that it will seek accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

While it might appear at first to be a purely mercantilist strategy, the UK has also committed itself to defending what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office calls the Rules-Based International System. This commitment has seen London aligning ever-closer to regional partners like Australia in the AUKMIN talks (Australia-UK Ministerial Consultations) and Japan in the UK-Japan Foreign and Defence Ministerial Meeting.

While geography and resources constraints still play heavily on the mind of a Ministry of Defence that must face Russian revisionism closer to home, the UK has managed to carry out military exercises in Japan and deploy three warships to the region over the space of a year.

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One of these, the HMS Albion, took part in a freedom of navigation manoeuvre in the South China Sea, raising a diplomatic protest from Beijing. In 2017, the British Ambassador in Washington, Kim Darrock, said that the HMS Queen Elizabeth – the UK’s new aircraft carrier – would also deploy to the region to “protect freedom of navigation and keep sea routes and air routes open”.

Regional states remain uncertain about Britain’s ability to commit to the Indo-Pacific, and that it is clear that this new policy approach has not yet entered public consciousness – which remains focused on Brexit and Europe.

Without proper resourcing and continued political support, a Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific ultimately cannot succeed. In the event of a fall of the May government, it’s not even clear that a Labour government would continue the strategy.

As the UK renegotiates its relationship with Europe, we are beginning to see a new global-facing posture, which gives it the possibility to engage in the Indo-Pacific region with increased vigour. There remain serious questions, however, before we can take Global Britain as a given.

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