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The contrast could hardly be greater: as the US voted in a president who has not committed himself to free trade and is keen on closed borders, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang crossed the new Silk Road from China to Europe through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Latvia, promoting precisely the opposite ideas.
And with concrete results. In Gwadar, Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif watched as the first load of products to make the journey down the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor from western China leave for the seas. As America closes in on itself, Eurasia is opening up ever more. And the British government, which has not missed these trends, needs to develop a more strategic approach if it is going to effectively position itself to take advantage of them.
In stark contrast to the apocalyptic vision of international relations which seems to be associated with US President-elect Donald Trump, China’s economy is pushing itself ever-more aggressively into the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ concept has become an all-encompassing foreign policy vision, espousing trade and connectivity with talk of the ‘revival of silk roads’ and ‘connectivity’. Nowhere is this clearer than in Eurasia, where China is re-drawing the economic and geopolitical map, as it steers money, companies and people into re-establishing Eurasian continental links.
Li’s tour in many ways mirrored Xi’s in June, when he travelled to Serbia, Poland and then Uzbekistan. And while the announcement of the first load of trucks making it from Kashgar in western China to the coast in Baluchistan was actually far more symbolic than economically significant, it did show how ‘Belt and Road’ connectivity rhetoric was producing results.
It is on this divergence of global attitudes between a retreating US and a thrusting China that UK and other middle powers would do well to focus. A simplification, perhaps, but clearly something is fundamentally shifting and in a world of growing giants, the UK needs to focus on how it can best position itself against these shifting tectonic plates.
The answer for London is a need for greater and closer engagement. With the US, it is likely too early to decide on how to deal with a Trumpian America. However, with China, the answer is to find ways to connect with this surge of Eurasian connectivity. At the same time, London has also to find ways of engaging more seriously with other Asian partners by taking advantage of the broader global shift taking place. Asia is a story of multiple rising giants, and the UK is well regarded by many of them. Britain has long under-performed in its engagement in Asian strategic and security affairs and now is the moment to take a more substantial posture on the issues that preoccupy its partners there.
The current British government has already started to make noises in this direction: while Li was crossing the continent and the US was voting for Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May was in India and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond hosted the latest Economic and Financial Dialogue with China in London. These moves need to be matched by a more serious engagement in regional strategic and security affairs.
Both China and India realise their growing weight in international affairs and want to engage with the UK as a serious power, but are often concerned that London does not take their strategic concerns seriously. This is likely less true for China than India. However, at the same time, the fact the UK has such an enhanced and visible engagement with China is having a detrimental knock-on effect on other Asian partners for whom China is a competitor and antagonist.
There are two important aspects from this for the UK to note. First, London needs to establish a more comprehensive and strategic dialogue with Asia. This means not just paying lip service to regional security questions, but playing a more forward role in engaging and understanding them. British diplomatic, analysis and security personnel across Asia and in government offices in London need to be enhanced and bolstered so that policymakers have a more substantial understanding of Asian dynamics and a demonstrable desire to engage in them.
Second, the UK needs to move forwards into playing a more engaged strategic role. Rather than continuing as a passive observer of regional dynamics, the UK should move into a position where it can build on its existing relationships to play the role of regional peace-broker.
To focus on Eurasia in particular: the current Chinese-driven surge of connectivity has the potential to be a collective net boon, but at the moment it is only partially working. Hiccups such as regional neighbours refusing to let products travel across their borders, or China being unable to resolve long-standing historical tensions, have hindered the smooth progress of the Belt and Road concept. If London stepped in to find a unique role as broker and diplomat between regional powers, it could help to encourage the aspiration of connectivity which serves a broader group of nations than just China.
Looking at South Asia, the UK’s relationships with both India and Pakistan place it in a unique position to try to lower tensions. Admittedly not an easy task, and one that has been attempted in fits and starts for some time, but a more focused effort on both sides of the border might help show a level of strategic seriousness that the UK is accused of missing in its current pursuit of trade deals.
By stepping forward to play this role – a position that may become vacant if Trump’s isolationist America happens – the UK will be able to carve a new role for itself in the world, one which benefits more from Asian growth without being too openly mercantilist.
The UK has been somewhat rudderless strategically since the referendum in June to leave the EU.
The election of Trump has further accentuated this perception, and there is a palpable concern about what might comes next. But the world has kept turning, and Chinese-driven Eurasian connectivity continues its inexorable surge. If the UK wants to truly benefit from this shifting world order, it needs to rapidly define where exactly it will sit and what it will bring to the table. Engaging more seriously and substantially in Asian strategic affairs would be an important place to start.
Banner image: The then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping to London, October 2015. Courtesy of the Foreign Office/Wikimedia.