The latest review of Britain’s defence and foreign policy includes a framework for an Indo-Pacific tilt. On the surface the tilt is a recognition that Britain needs a more systematic response to the most pressing international relations issue of the 21st century – the rise of China.
More broadly, it is recognition that the Indo-Pacific represents the centre of geopolitics and geoeconomics in the 21st century. The region also performs a deeper function in providing Britain with a stage on which to re-interpret its trade, diplomacy and defence policies following its departure from the European Union.
The tilt, introduced in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in March 2021, the largest review of its kind since the end of the Cold War, is presented as part of an agenda for shaping the ‘open international order of the future’ and is a new emphasis for the broader reset of the UK’s international role.
The review also paves the way for an increase in the number of warheads in Britain’s nuclear arsenal, a departure from a focus on non-proliferation in recent decades.
The strategic vogue of Indo-Pacific
At its most expansive, the Indo-Pacific stretches from the eastern rim of the Pacific Ocean along the coast of the Americas to the western edge of the Indian Ocean where it meets the east coast of Africa.
An ‘inner’ Indo-Pacific is defined as stretching from the Indian subcontinent through Southeast Asia and encompasses China and its neighbouring states in Northeast Asia, notably Korea and Japan. In addition to the major states within it, the region has a central importance to the global economy not just in terms of accounting for almost half of global output but also through its central role in global supply chains.
The Indo-Pacific has come back into vogue as a description for this vast region over the past decade and a half, led by Japan and Australia. It is not simply used as a term to define a geographic space but as a way of articulating the underlying dynamics of the region and ambitions for its future.
The increase in its use coincides with the rise of China, and its adoption by the United States, especially in the security and defence communities concerned with the growth in China’s military capabilities and the increase in territorial disputes.
European states, including Britain, have not been leading diplomatic or military players in the region yet Britain and France both maintain defence commitments to Indo-Pacific states.
France has been keen to assert itself as a ‘resident’ power in the region, stressing its overseas territories and the presence in them of a large number of French citizens, which gives it a direct interest in the Indo-Pacific. The British Overseas Territories in the region are a more modest set of territorial responsibilities with smaller populations than those of France but include the British Indian Ocean Territory that houses the Naval Support Facility, Diego Garcia, leased to the United States.
France has led Britain in reconsidering strategy for the Indo-Pacific with a major policy reset announced by President Emmanuel Macron in 2018. More recently, in September 2020, the German government, and two months later the Dutch government, have both published new Indo-Pacific strategies. The European Union is also in the process of drawing up a collective strategy for its 27 member states.
The security strand of Britain’s Indo-Pacific approach is tied to America’s focus on China as its new strategic competitor. Britain’s predominant strategic interest is in maintaining its close security and defence relationship with Washington. This promotes a UK interest in America’s diplomatic and military alliances in the Indo-Pacific and its military posture towards China.
The Indo-Pacific tilt also performs another function for Britain in exorcising an East of Suez ghost. Commentary on an Indo-Pacific tilt is often accompanied by the notion that this a return ‘East of Suez’ for Britain. The retreat from East of Suez is shorthand for the dramatic diminution of Britain’s ambition and commitment. It refers to the announcement of the decision by Harold Wilson’s government in January 1968 to withdraw British forces from bases East of Suez and the Gulf by the end of 1971.
The announcement was seen as the acceptance of the fact that the UK economy could no longer sustain a global role. The practical consequences were the closure of the Britain’s key military bases in the Gulf and in Southeast Asia in Malaysia and Singapore. The UK had withdrawn the military from Aden in 1967.
The decision is important because it has set the tone for subsequent discussion on the Britain’s international security and defence posture. A decision to re-engage East of Suez can be seen as a reinvigoration of Britain’s international engagement and a new way forward for a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’. This position was exemplified by Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, in a speech in Bahrain in December 2016 entitled ‘Britain is Back East of Suez’. In this he presented the original 1968 decision to withdraw as a victory in cabinet for ministers who favoured membership of the European Economic Community.
This creates something of a ‘back to the future’ vibe for Britain’s security and defence policy possibilities in the coming years. A key component of this defence back-tracking is the building of the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers – a decision taken by the 2005-2010 Labour government. That was itself a significant departure from the decision taken in the 1966 Defence White Paper that Britain would not build replacements for its Second World War-era carriers. Significantly, the first operational deployment of the Queen Elizabeth-led Carrier Strike Group 21 is to be to the Gulf and the Pacific.
Trade and diplomacy
The Integrated Review section on the Indo-Pacific tilt outlines a framework that stresses economic opportunity and the promotion of British interests in maintaining open societies and upholding international norms and values. It also outlines an ambition for a ‘persistent’ engagement by the British armed forces in building security capacity for the region.
Anticipating the review, the Indo-Pacific has been the focus for the Britain’s new generation of post-Brexit trade agreements.
The initial focus of this post-Brexit policy was to ensure that trade continued on an uninterrupted basis outside the EU. In the agreement reached with Japan this was pushed beyond the extensive EU-Japan agreement. Talks to reach free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand are ongoing. The most eye-catching move has been Britain’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, between 11 countries, including Japan, Singapore, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If successful, this would be the first enlargement of the grouping to a non-Pacific state.
Britain has also stepped up collective diplomatic activity on China with the US, and Australia, and Canada have adopted a more strident position towards China on its treatment of Hong Kong.
The UK has also sought to use its 2021 presidency of the G7 to expand the grouping into a ‘D10’ alliance of democracies – incorporating G7 members plus Australia, South Korea and India. It is also seeking networks of collaboration to create alternative suppliers of 5G wireless equipment and other technology to reduce reliance on China.
For the British government a focus on the Indo-Pacific provides a different canvas on which to paint a post-Brexit foreign policy. It is one that exemplifies a move away from the overly Eurocentric focus of previous governments. The new Indo-Pacific approach can also be presented as a public backtracking on the strategic retrenchment that coincided with Britain’s entry into what would become the EU.
The tilt to the Indo-Pacific region is designed to be focused on opportunities: stressing the promotion of the UK’s prosperity through connections to the fastest growing economies and protecting the rules-based international system.
On the ambitions for a greater security and defence participation in the Indo-Pacific a key determinant will be Britain’s financial ability to sustain those commitments. The financial pressures that reduced defence commitments East of Suez in the past could return to haunt Britain again.