China and Brexit Drive the UK's ‘Tilt’ to Indo-Pacific

Strengthening relations in the Indo-Pacific offers the chance for the UK to influence the digital economy and help create a free and open international order.

Expert comment Published 27 November 2020 3 minute READ

The UK is the only one of the big three European states not to have announced an Indo-Pacific strategy: France unveiled one in 2018 and Germany did likewise in September, while the European Union (EU) is also known to be working on its own version. Although the UK might appear to be behind the curve, a deeper examination suggests the foundations of its own ’tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific are already in place.

The moves so far have been relatively small, but they are parts of a coherent effort to further the UK’s three foreign policy objectives of promoting prosperity, protecting the rules-based international system, and being a ‘force for good’ in the world. Encouragingly for the UK government, its economic, diplomatic, and military initiatives have already gained support among its counterparts in the newly-defined ‘Indo-Pacific’ region.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific originated in Australia in 2009, was developed by Japan’s call for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ in 2016, and then endorsed by the United States in 2018. Describing a vast region of the world encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans from East Africa to the western United States, the Indo-Pacific feels closer to Europe than Asia-Pacific or the Far East ever did.

Trade diversification already underway

The UK’s expected departure from the EU single market means it has little choice but to diversify trading partners but, in reality this was already happening before Brexit. The EU’s share of UK trade has fallen from around 55 to 45 percent over the past two decades.

However, there is now a pressing need to agree replacements for the EU’s many international trade agreements. China is also a factor. Over the past four years, there has been a major reassessment of Beijing’s behaviour and intentions, and its recent violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong is being seen as the last straw.

Given its distance from the Pacific, a UK application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade agreement between 11 countries, seems surprising, even if five of them - Japan, Singapore, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – do have significant trade relations with the UK.

But that was before Brexit. Although membership of CPTPP will not compensate for the economic costs of leaving the EU, and any initial benefits for business are likely to be modest, there now appear to be good reasons for the UK to actually join it. And all 11 existing members have already offered their support for its membership application.

CPTPP can open doors, in particular to the future of the digital economy where the ‘drag of distance’ is reduced so the UK can be a genuine player in the region. By joining, the UK gets to play a part in writing the new rules of the digital economy as well as adding its weight to CPTPP efforts to create a more free and open international trading order instead of adhering to economic ‘spheres of influence’.

Becoming part of CPTPP sends a wider message that the UK is declaring itself part of ‘Team Indo-Pacific’ – embedding its economic future in a strategically important region globally. And membership also complements another diplomatic initiative – the UK’s efforts to become an official dialogue partner of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

For the past 40 years, the UK has enjoyed a shared dialogue partner status with ASEAN through membership of the EU so, in the wake of Brexit, it is asking the organization to recognise the UK as a partner in its own right. ASEAN sits at the centre of many economic and security arrangements in East and Southeast Asia, and dialogue partner status would give the UK a place at several important tables.

Although formerly the colonial power in four ASEAN states – Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore – memories of independence struggles have been largely superseded by a willingness to deal with the UK as a middle power sharing an interest in preserving the group’s strategic autonomy in the face of a rising China and competition between China and the US.

Potential opposition from Myanmar

But the UK’s application does face challenges, with the most significant being an official moratorium on new dialogue partners agreed by ASEAN 23 years ago. There may also be opposition from Myanmar as the government resents the international criticism it has faced over alleged human rights abuse against the Rohingya minority.

But all ten ASEAN countries have attended talks with British ministers and diplomats, and a recent opinion poll of Southeast Asian policymakers showed overwhelming support for some kind of formal relationship.

On the military front, the promise of significant extra funding for the UK ministry of defence is in part to support a stronger naval presence in Asian waters. Much of this will be focused on the Indian Ocean and the Gulf, but will also support operations further east: in the South China Sea and the Pacific.

The UK government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Development is likely to cement this focus on the Indo-Pacific when it reports in 2021, and this too has been welcomed by many UK partners in the region.

The architecture of the UK government has also already changed with its Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) appointing a new director-general for the Indo-Pacific, and discussions about an Indo-Pacific ‘framework’ are ongoing. Once completed, this should provide guiding principles for strategies focused on specific parts of the region.

The UK may never formally adopt an Indo-Pacific strategy in the same manner as its main European partners, but there is a significant reorientation of foreign policy already underway. And although carried out by different departments and progressing at different speeds, this change has a joined-up character to it.

The overall effect is likely to embed the UK in the Indo-Pacific region as a valuable partner for those countries which value a free and open international order.