Britain’s Tilt to the Indo-Pacific

CHINA US FOCUS – Jan 22, 2021

  • Zhang Bei Assistant Research Fellow, China Institute of International Studies

At the beginning of 2021, the UK drew the world’s attention for two things:

First was a new variant of the COVID-19 virus, which contributed to a rapid rise of infections and caused global alarm.

It was a grim reminder of Britain’s poor performance in the global fight against the pandemic. The Financial Times wrote that the UK’s COVID response was “behind the curve,” a characterization confirmed by the data. More than 2.3 million cases have been diagnosed and more than 70,000 deaths have been reported in the UK. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the UK economy could shrink by as much as 11.3 percent in 2020, making it the worst-hit country in the G7.

The second thing was Brexit. The UK and EU concluded a trade deal before the deadline. Four years after the Brexit referendum, the UK finally completed the whole process and “took back control.”

Yet, as the modest name “trade and cooperation agreement” suggests, the deal was mainly about avoiding the worst effects of a no-deal Brexit, dealing with trade in goods while largely excluding trade in services. This is bound to create obstacles for trade in both goods and services between the two sides. The OBR estimates it will cost the UK 5.2 percent of GDP over the next 15 years.

The combined cost of the pandemic and Brexit paints a not-so-rosy picture of the post-Brexit future. However, after concluding the divisive and overwhelming project, UK policymakers at last have a free hand to implement their own vision.

In foreign relations, “global Britain” has received a lot of attention. An obvious strategic adjustment now is to tilt toward the Indo-Pacific region.

In recent years, the Indo-Pacific has rapidly become the centerpiece of an important geo-economic and geostrategic concept that the United States, Japan, Australia and India are all eager to shape. In Europe, several countries — France, Germany and the Netherlands — all published Indo-Pacific strategies.

Although the UK hasn’t issued such a document, it is already taking active steps. There is plenty of internal impetus. The UK wants to expand trade links to make up for the losses of Brexit, repair its bruised international image by acting as a guardian of international order, a good ally and a fair mediator. It takes pride in its imperial heritage in the Indo-Pacific and retains strategically important Indian Ocean territories, wide diplomatic ties and security cooperation mechanisms such as the so-called Five Eyes alliance and the Five-Country Joint Defense.

The British Indo-Pacific strategy currently in the making will be a comprehensive one combining trade, diplomacy and defense.

Trade is the priority. Britain is keen to promote FTAs in the area, concluding talks with Japan and Vietnam in 2020, and having ongoing talks with Australia and New Zealand. It also makes public its intention to join the CPTPP, seeing it an important platform to shape regional economic rules.

It is also very active in diplomacy. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab visited the region multiple times in 2020, paving the way for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to India this year. Britain is also seeking to become ASEAN’s official dialogue partner. As the host of the G7 in 2021, the UK has invited Australia, India and South Korea.

Britain’s military actions over the years have also been in line with this tilt. In 2018, HMS Albion sailed into the disputed 12 nautical mile zone of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. In January 2019, Britain and the United States held their first joint military exercise in waters claimed by China.

This year the defense department will receive 16.5 billion British pounds of investment despite a tight budget, partly to support operations in the Indo-Pacific region. The UK is also stepping up efforts to reach military cooperation agreements with countries in the region.

Clearly, a British tilt toward the Indo-Pacific is not only promised but already on the way. How far it can go is a key question.

Post-pandemic and post-Brexit, the UK faces daunting challenges, from leveling up economic development to preserving the union of its four parts. A serious commitment to the Indo-Pacific will require a lot of investment in a very difficult time — an underlying factor to be reckoned with.

The UK may also have overestimated its popularity in the region. It’s probably true that some regional countries will try to bring in outside forces to serve their own purposes, but more countries hope to maintain peace and stability. This raises questions about the nature of Britain’s strategy, which will not have broad regional support if it tries to intervene only to stir up trouble.

The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020 will also have an important impact on the region’s economy. A successful regional mechanism of integration and cooperation will set a threshold for non-regional countries to get involved. 

The key problem with Britain’s Indo-Pacific policy transition is that it cannot avoid the burgeoning head-on competition between China and the United States — a question the UK has been dodging for quite some time. In the past year its stance on Huawei and Hong Kong, together with the anti-China mood in the Conservative Party indicate a hardening approach toward China.

On the other hand, the UK’s view of the China-U.S. rivalry is far more nuanced than simply picking sides. It is reported that the foreign secretary said in an internal meeting that Britain needed to be a “convener of like-minded partners” and to assume that “the future will be decided only by the U.S., China and the EU is intellectual laziness.”

If the UK hasn’t thought through its position relative to the strategic competition between China and the United States, its Indo-Pacific pivot will not make much of a splash.


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