Main Image Credit A UK aircraft carrier strike group could be deployed to waters near Japan this year. Pictured are HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Dragon, courtesy of Ministry of Defence/Open Government Licence v3.0
Having failed to beat the EU to the Indo-Pacific, and with US–EU relations less than ideal ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration this month, the UK could carve out a niche in Asia by aligning with US policy.
George Orwell remarked that ‘before one can even speak about [Rudyard] Kipling one has to clear away a legend that has been created by two sets of people who have not read his works’. In similar fashion, one must also clear away two prevailing opinions about the UK’s pledged pivot to Asia, which Boris Johnson, when foreign secretary in December 2016, described as moving interests back ‘east of Suez’ – a line from Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’. One opinion contends it was an afterthought of where the UK’s foreign policy interests should lie if they aren’t with Europe, following the Brexit referendum. The other: it's entirely a nostalgic undertaking to recover some prestige from the country’s colonial past.
But the idea of shifting foreign policy interest away from the near abroad and the Middle East towards what is now referred to as the Indo-Pacific, the centre of the global economy and geopolitics in the 21st century, wasn’t thought up on the cuff in the months after the referendum. Trade with Asia had grown considerably by the mid-2010s, especially with the region’s rising markets. Trade with Vietnam tripled between 2010 and 2019 to £5.7 billion. On a visit to Malaysia in April 2012, then Prime Minister David Cameron said of UK–Southeast Asian relations that ‘the era of benign neglect is over’. Three years later, he toasted a new ‘golden era’ of UK–China ties.
Neither did the EU have the robust position it now holds in the region. The EU–South Korea free-trade agreement (FTA) came into force in 2015, but similar agreements with Japan and Singapore didn’t take effect until 2019, and with Vietnam until 2020. The EU was a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum and its European defence ministers attended the annual security Shangri La Dialogue summits in Singapore before 2016. But it took until December 2020 for the EU to become a ‘strategic partner’ of the ASEAN bloc. Moreover, while the French Ministry of Defence announced in early 2017 that Paris’s policy is ‘to rebalance its strategic centre of gravity towards the Indo-Pacific’, its formal Indo-Pacific strategy wasn’t published until June 2018. Germany announced their comparable strategy in September 2020 and the Netherlands two months later. The EU’s own policy will likely be announced this year.
Playing Catch Up
Whereas the UK might have hoped in late 2016 to be able to carve out some sort of niche in the Indo-Pacific in relation to the EU’s approach, it is now playing catch up. In fact, it has mostly piggy-backed on efforts by Brussels; all of the Asian states the UK has so far agreed free-trade deals with had previously agreed FTAs with the EU.
There is optimism in London that the UK could join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between 11 Pacific-rim states. The UK opened a new mission to ASEAN early last year and it could become an official dialogue partner. But this is held up by the bloc’s moratorium on accepting new partners, although only 2.8% of Southeast Asian opinion-formers think that ASEAN should reject the UK’s request, according to a survey from last year.
‘We are pursuing trade deals from Australia to the US and around the world – particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, a huge growth market for the future’, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wrote in The Telegraph in December. Speaking this month, Prime Minister Johnson called 2021 a ‘hugely important year for global Britain’.
The UK now has three main options: continue trying to chart its own path in the Indo-Pacific; align more closely with the EU’s agenda; or find a way of cooperating with US policy in the region.
Recent decisions in Brussels may give the third option more credence. The European Commission’s decision in late December to agree terms on a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China is thought to have frustrated the incoming Biden team, which had suggested the EU delay talks and cooperate with the US in 2021 to extract better concessions from Beijing. US–EU relations may now be frosty when Biden takes office later this month.
This offers the UK more space to try to align with the incoming Biden administration, including joint efforts to press for economic concessions from Beijing. In late 2020, Washington and Brussels agreed to a new forum to discuss their policies on China. The UK could call for something similar with the US, which may look upon the UK more favourably after the actions by Brussels last month.
Biden – whose expected reset of US policy in the Indo-Pacific also offers the UK the chance of closer cooperation – has already supported London’s call for a new democratic alliance (the D-10) and Johnson has invited India, Australia and South Korea to the G7 summit London is set to host later this year. And while UK policy in the region lacks an institutional framework – it has no Indo-Pacific strategy yet, for instance – this could give London flexibility if it does align closer with US strategy.
A good majority of political elites in Australia, Japan, India and Vietnam – possibly Singapore and Indonesia as well – would appreciate more joined-up thinking between Washington and London in the region, especially on security matters. Raab and India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, agreed to broaden security relations and engagement on ‘shared security threats’ when they spoke last month.
Cooperating with the US
It would also be mutually beneficial to UK and US interests. The UK retains a good deal of soft power through historic diplomatic ties, its language and the attraction of its universities, whose appeal could be expanded if Asian students find it easier to study in the UK now that it is out of the European Erasmus programme.
The UK also retains hard power in the region, including a garrison in Brunei. It is supposedly looking to set up a new military base, possibly in Japan. The Royal Navy sent five warships to the region between 2018 and 2020, oftentimes conducting US-style freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. A UK aircraft carrier strike group could be deployed to waters near Japan this year for joint operations with the US and Japan's Self-Defense Forces.
Japan is also thought to be considering whether to join the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance – currently between Australia, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the US – although it has reportedly already begun sharing intelligence documents about China with the US and the UK. The UK is also part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements with its commonwealth partners – Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore.
Yet, whatever decision London makes, it must first solidify its stance on China. While most analysts argue that the UK’s Indo-Pacific plan ought not to be Sino-centric, it cannot presume to know how to act in the region – as a non-partisan ‘middle power’, a security actor or mere trade partner – until it knows its stance on Beijing, a frequent criticism of EU policy in the region.
For now, London leans anti-Beijing. In 2020, it volte-faced on the issue of Huawei, vocally admonished human rights abuses in Xinjiang and offered residency to hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers after Beijing’s imposition of a national security law over the previously politically autonomous region. Anti-China sentiment is now dominant within the Conservative party, and among Tory supporters, and growing in Labour ranks.
The UK must have more to offer the rest of the Indo-Pacific besides a touch stick against China, and through some form of partnership with the US it could carve a niche in the region to differentiate itself from EU policy. But the UK will build little trust if the likes of Australia, Japan, India and Vietnam believe it will sell out security relations for the sake of a quick trade and investment deal with China. As Johnson intoned, 2021 should be the year the UK’s Indo-Pacific plan actually takes shape.
David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and the UK, reporting on British and European foreign affairs, and Europe–Asia relations. He was previously based in Southeast Asia between 2014–19. He is a columnist at The Diplomat and Asia Times.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.