Over a year ago, in its “most radical assessment of the UK’s place in the world since the end of the Cold War”, the British government set out its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. It advocated for an “Indo-Pacific tilt” as a critical element in what was a fresh “Global Britain” strategy.
This was in the middle of the Covid pandemic and before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine urged a reappraisal of strategic threats and priorities. Russia was certainly identified as the most acute direct threat to the UK but the review’s emphasis on the need for an Indo-Pacific tilt also remains highly relevant.
Apart from the growing economic importance of the region, China’s increasing military power and assertiveness needs to be counterbalanced. This means securing and enhancing relationships with old friends, particularly within the Commonwealth, and seeking new partners.
When some other parts of the world held back from condemning Russian aggression, eight out of 10 of the vital ASEAN bloc voted with the Western democracies, including its most populous member, Indonesia. As one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and predicted to become the world’s fourth-largest in 2050, Indonesia has been a priority post-Brexit partner for the UK. A year ago, the UK and Indonesia concluded the first round of exploratory trade talks and committed to further strengthening their trade and investment links, which rose to a record £3bn of bilateral trade in 2019 through a new joint trade dialogue.
Yet while the Integrated Review set out the ambitious goal of Britain being “the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific,” the UK has struggled to make much of a visible impact in the region.
Aside from penning the AUKUS agreement, and its application to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), it has achieved few results so far. The principle behind the strategy remains sound. In what is a fast-moving environment, more of a priority must be placed on pushing through initiatives of substance, unless the UK is to be left behind by other competitors with poorer credentials.
The region is an ideal candidate for leveraging “post-Brexit freedoms”. But expansive new trade deals and deepened strategic ties have not been pursued sufficiently. Others, including the US with its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and the EU, which has trade talks underway with the ASEAN bloc and many of its members, seem to be on the front foot in the region. But even these initiatives have not been as substantive as many Asian countries may have hoped. Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister of Economic Affairs, Airlangga Hartarto, says these countries are merely asking for “equitable and comprehensive agreements which recognise the true potential of all parties.”
The potential for the UK is obvious. With over 270m people, already in the world’s top 10 largest economies, and current chair of the G20, Indonesia cannot be considered small fry by any government. It is an example of a country that should be a key piece of post-Brexit, Global Britain strategy.
Other major players in the region like the Philippines – where a new President looks set to actively pursue international engagement – Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam could also be vitally important for the UK. Equally, relations with ASEAN itself need to be expanded beyond Britain merely being a “Dialogue Partner”.
More concrete economic commitments and security partnerships, along with a more active information policy, must be at the heart of revitalised engagement if countries in Asia, and indeed elsewhere, are to take the UK seriously as a worthwhile international partner.
The importance of the Indo-Pacific, as outlined by the Integrated Review, in terms of the wider Global Britain vision is clear. Outside of its economic value (as a key market for British exports and a key supplier of British imports) there are other issues that loom large – climate change, defence, cyber security, democratic values, counter-extremism.
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The leading role that Britain has taken in supporting Ukraine is an example that needs emphasis in other theatres.
Continuing along the generally slow path that it currently treads with regards to its Indo-Pacific engagement does nothing for its Global Britain credentials. The enormous post-2009 opportunity to assist and exert real influence in a country such as Sri Lanka lapsed into an unwelcome and often misconceived human rights critique. The disappointing results from failure to wean India from her over-reliance on Russia are clear from recent UN votes. The countries of South-East Asia and several Commonwealth countries are increasingly under the shadow of China, the primary trading partner for many of them.
Domestic political crises, the unhelpful attitude of some EU members, and the Ukraine conflict seem to leave little bandwidth for pursuit of vital British economic and foreign policy aims that would also greatly help the countries concerned. This is in spite of the British Foreign Secretary’s efforts. The “Indo-Pacific tilt” remains very much in the balance.
If Global Britain is to be anything more than a slogan, then there needs to be a more pragmatic, hard-headed and proactive approach to enhancing relationships in a crucial region of the world.
Geoffrey Van Orden is a Distinguished Fellow of the Gold Institute for International Strategy. He was formerly a long-standing member of the European Parliament, where he was Conservative Leader and Defence and Security Spokesman, Chairman of the Delegation for Relations with India and member of the Parliament’s Friends of Indonesia group.