York Global Affairs Collab – The UK Returns ‘East of Suez’

Check out York Global Affairs at: https://yorkglobalaffairs.com/

(Photo: Wikipedia)

By Luke Jones – Chairman of York Global Affairs

Over 50 years since the UK withdrew from regions ‘East of Suez’, Boris and Co are promising a British return. In the Integrated Review, the official account of Global Britain, the Government trumpet an “Indo-Pacific tilt” in British foreign policy, setting the ambitious goal to be the European partner “with the broadest, most integrated presence” in the region by 2030. With an expectation that Whitehall will commit much greater resources to the Indo-Pacific region, it implies a rebalancing of the UK’s geopolitical interests. The first deployment of the Royal Navy’s carrier strike group (CSG) to the Indo-Pacific, the largest of its kind since the Falklands War, is symbolic of this shift in the UK’s foreign policy strategy. The chosen destination for the maiden voyage of the UK’s greatest-ever aircraft carrier is no mistake. HMS Queen Elizabeth is drawing an arrow to the Indo-Pacific which Whitehall will follow.

The 19th century was Pax Britannica and the 20th century was Pax Americana. This begs the question: what will the 21st century be known as? Dubbed by many as the ‘Asian Century’, the Government’s Indo-Pacific tilt is not a knee-jerk reaction to Brexit, but instead is reflective of the material reality of this age. The region contains a concentration of the world’s high-growth economies which is reflected in economic projections. The continent is “on track to top 50 percent of global GDP by 2040 and drive 40 percent of the world’s consumption”, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Hence, the Integrated Review frames the tilt not as optional but necessary to best place British interests and values in this new age. This broadly includes support for the maintenance of global free trade, international institutions and the rule of law.

This policy shift is an integral part of the Government’s foreign policy strategy, but it is not without its doubters. At home, sceptics of the Government’s foreign policy strategy, Global Britain, suggest that it is rhetorically rich but substantively weak. Abroad, the UK’s detractors envisage it as a return to colonialism. Although British involvement in the region is broadly well received, it is imperative that Whitehall define what a British return to the region will entail. Building off of the Integrated Review, this article will concisely identify three prominent examples of bilateral relations and multilateral organisations in the Indo-Pacific to explore what a reengaged UK ‘East of Suez’ might look like in practice. By contextualising the tilt, it attempts to add substance to the rhetoric of Global Britain.

Bilateral Relations: China, India and Japan

China’s surging power and international assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific is a central reason for the UK’s foreign policy rethink. How the UK should engage with China has been a hot topic in foreign policy circles. The Integrated Review identifies China as a “systemic competitor”, making a distinction between shared trade and investment and British national security and values. In practice, two-pronged diplomacy will be a fine line for the UK to walk. A recent example is the tariffs China has imposed on various Australian industries following an ongoing diplomatic row between the two countries. Despite a rapid trade increase, salient issues such as Huwaei’s 5G ban and the erosion of Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ status have inflamed relations between London and Beijing. Renewed emphasis on bilateral and multilateral arrangements in the Indo-Pacific can be seen as an attempt by Whitehall to counterbalance its growing influence.

The Integrated Review declares that the UK will ‘transform’ its relationship with fellow Commonwealth nation India, weighing in on strong cultural and diplomatic ties. Despite past divergence, London and New Delhi have many shared interests which, following the Indo-Pacific tilt, appear to be being given greater attention in both capitals. Last May, Prime Minister Johnson and Prime Minister Modi formally announced this new dawn for Indo-British relations by committing to a ‘2030 Roadmap’, providing a framework for cooperation across health, climate, trade, education, science, technology and defence. Most notably, the roadmap announces an Enhanced Trade Partnership, bidding to double Indo-British trade by 2030 and speeding up the first phase of pre-negotiations for a future free trade agreement (FTA). Although it presents the UK with a window to remove trade barriers with India it had previously faced inside the EU’s remit, its feasibility is uncertain as Modi is yet to sign a FTA in office.

Japan, the final destination for the UK’s CSG, is in many respects a natural ally to counter China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. The Integrated Review identified the fellow island nation as “one of our closest strategic partners” which the British government is “committed to deepening”. In addition to a strengthened post-Brexit trade and security partnership, Japan has welcomed the UK’s application to join the CPTPP (a free trade agreement explored further below). If admitted, the UK and Japan will be the two largest economies, bringing Anglo-Japanese relations closer still. Japan is home to the greatest forward deployment of US troops in the world – some 55,000. With their call on European NATO allies to increase defence spending, a greater British military presence in Japan may also curry favour in Washington.

Multilateral Organisations: ASEAN, CPTPP and FPDA

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an intergovernmental organisation of 10 Southeast Asian countries aimed at promoting economic growth and regional stability among its member states. On 5th August, the British government formalised its relationship with the group by becoming a Dialogue Partner. The Integrated Review, foretelling this move, identified ASEAN as playing a “central role in regional stability and prosperity”. This privileged status gives the UK high-level access to ASEAN summits which the Government will hope stimulates deeper practical cooperation on issues like regional stability and climate change.

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is a free trade agreement between 11 countries around the Pacific Rim which the Integrated Review endorsed as being “one of the most dynamic trading areas in the world”. The UK formally launched accession negotiations with the grouping last February. With a pledge to eliminate or reduce 95 percent of import charges or tariffs, the principal benefit of membership is greater access to its constituents’ markets without the constraint of a single market or customs union that EU membership imposes. British exports to its members will surge 65% to £37bn by 2030, according to government estimates.

In the military sphere, the UK is tactfully strengthening security cooperation with several Indo-Pacific countries, embracing its role in the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA). The FDPA is, according to Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute, “Asia’s most enduring and eclectic defence multilateral”, partnering the UK with four Indo-Pacific Commonwealth members—Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore—to enhance the regional security of Southeast Asia. Matched with the Five Eyes intelligence alliance and the Ministry of Defence’s 5 military installations, the UK maintains a strategic foothold in the region which the Integrated Review directs it to strengthen.

British engagement in the Indo-Pacific is by no means limited to these select examples but they do provide a snapshot of what it might mean in practice. Irrespective of how many friends it makes or clubs it joins, Whitehall must advance with an acute understanding of the national interest first and finding a role second. The UK’s resources are finite: setting sail for the Far East has clear limitations that must be carefully balanced alongside other commitments closer to home such as NATO. Advocates of the Indo-Pacific tilt maintain that strengthening the UK’s diplomatic and trading ties in the region is vital to securing its interests and values beyond Europe in a changing geopolitical landscape. To achieve this the relationships which this article has singled out must form part of a coherent, jointup strategy. If the Indo-Pacific tilt is to become a pillar of British foreign policy then such a network is essential for the Government to achieve real results for the British people and its allies in the region.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s