11 May 2018
By building on existing relationships, Britain can offer strategic engagement to partners after Brexit.
Cleo Paskal

Cleo Paskal

Associate Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources Department and Asia-Pacific Programme

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The prime minister of Tonga, Samiuela 'Akilisi Pohiva, arrives at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in London in April. Photo: Getty Images.
The prime minister of Tonga, Samiuela 'Akilisi Pohiva, arrives at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in London in April. Photo: Getty Images.

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In April, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson offered a glimpse of what the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy might look like, announcing nine new diplomatic posts in the Caribbean (Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Grenada, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), southern Africa (Lesotho and eSwatini) and the Pacific (Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu).

All are Commonwealth countries. Most have high proportions of the population who are educated and comfortable in English. Lesotho, eSwatini and Tonga all have monarchs who did at least some of their schooling in the UK. In most cases, there are few other diplomatic posts in these small nations. (Lesotho, at just over 2 million, has the largest population of the nine.)

Seven of the nine are island nations facing complex environmental challenges, a long-standing diplomatic priority of the UK and the next head of the Commonwealth, Prince Charles, and now enshrined as a clear focus in the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

All in all, it looks like the Foreign Office has taken a look around the globe and identified locations where the UK has an existing soft power advantage that, combined with a lack of diplomatic ‘competition’, can be leveraged for much larger strategic advantage.

Building value

With the new posts, the UK government builds trust with Commonwealth partners by committing the money and resources to becoming much more visible and accessible. Given each of these countries, no matter how small, has a vote equal to larger countries in international forums, it could potentially increase international support for London. Conversely, the island nations get as a partner a permanent member of the UN Security Council who is willing to take what they consider to be a potentially existential threat, climate change, seriously.

It could also increase London’s value for European partners. In some of the nine, there is no permanent mission from a European country. Though Emmanuel Macron made much of France being part of an of an ‘Indo-Pacific axis’ with India and Australia during his recent trip to the Pacific, with the new missions, the UK will cover more Pacific countries than France.

So, if a German diplomat comes to Tonga, for example, where there are no other European missions, they would be likely to want to meet someone from the UK high commission for a briefing. The UK could also potentially offer consular assistance to European nationals.

The strategy seems to be low cost, efficient, and potentially important for defining the UK’s post-Brexit role and identity. The thing to watch for now is implementation. There are some easy mistakes to make. And some easy ways to avoid them.

Scattered knowledge

Countries with small populations tend to be complex, with intricate relationships, good and bad, between key political and economic families. Because politics can run in a family, there are very long memories. Understanding them takes listening and trust.

Within the UK, there is an unusual depth of knowledge on most of the places with which it is reengaging, but that knowledge is scattered. There is some experience within the Foreign Office in certain locations; for instance, Vanuatu and Tonga hosted UK missions as recently as 2006. In others, the knowledge is in academic institutions (especially history and natural sciences), some in the arts and museum communities, some in the military, some in religious societies, some even in the royal family.

It might serve the UK government to establish informal engagement nodes within the UK for the various smaller posts – permanent, if unofficial, communities of interest that can provide background for those newly posted to the regions, and provide a point of contact for visiting delegations from the regions. Those groups would also enhance the UK’s position as being uniquely placed to help its allies understand and engage. This would be valued by the smaller countries, as often their concerns are mediated through their larger neighbours, with their message becoming distorted in the process.

Complicated partners

One common misapprehension in facing these challenges is that some of the UK’s closest partners share all its views and goals. That isn’t always the case.

For example, some in Australia and New Zealand want to guard and reinforce their position in the Pacific, even at the expense of other partners and, potentially, regional security. The 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper stated: ‘Economic integration within the region and with Australia and New Zealand is vital to the economic prospects of the Pacific’. To that end, Canberra and Wellington have been pushing countries in the region to sign PACER Plus, a free trade agreement of questionable benefit to the Pacific countries.

The deal is designed to ensure that Australian and New Zealand businesses ‘future proof’ their access to Pacific economies through the ‘most favoured nation’ clauses in PACER Plus. This disadvantages other countries, including close partners like the UK and US, which is why the three countries in free association with the United States – the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau – haven’t signed. Nor have Fiji and Papua New Guinea, two of the biggest economies in the region.

The three Pacific countries with new UK posts have all signed but not ratified PACER Plus. In Tonga, disquiet over the deal contributed to the call for an early election. In this context, UK and US interests are more aligned than UK and New Zealand interests.

Many of the leaders in these small states will welcome another outside voice to temper the desires of their larger, closer, partners. And it will be interesting to see how the US interacts with the new UK posts, given they share a security partnership and have no interest in being sidelined economically.

China: the new player

There is a precedent for this dynamic. Over 100 years ago New Zealand was keen to annex Tonga and depose the king, by force if necessary. The UK intervened and set up a comparatively benign protectorate. This time, however, there is another factor: China.

More recently, after the UK closed its high commission in Tonga in 2006, followers of a political movement backed, politically and economically, by New Zealand rioted and burned down close to 80% of Tonga’s capital. Australia and New Zealand offered comparatively little to help Tonga rebuild. So Beijing came in with a large loan.

As the UK reemerges as a bilateral player, it will repeatedly find this sort of situation, where there are strained relations with traditional partners and China is knocking on the door (or indeed rebuilding the whole house).

Opportunity

If the UK brings a truly informed and responsive approach to engagement, focused on wider security and prosperity, it could fill a void and help itself and its partners. Post-Brexit the UK could turn its Commonwealth legacy into something truly positive and strategic in vast, poorly understood and too often overlooked parts of the globe.

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