Part II: ‘Global Britain’ and the Indo-Pacific in 2022
By Eerishika Pankaj | 09 February 2022
An extended post-Brexit need to establish itself beyond and above Brussels has guided London’s outlook to be the “European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence” in the Indo-Pacific by 2030. Overall, with the Indo-Pacific having been identified as a key theatre of security competition, the number of actors, minilaterals and ventures in the region has tremendously grown in the past decade. In a bid to maintain quality over quantity, it is hence critical to assess what ‘Global Britain’ adds to the region. The UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt is welcomed by actors like India, Japan, the US and Australia, but what exactly it entails and what gap it fills must be questions that ‘Global Britain’ answers.
Assessing the present and future of London’s Indo-Pacific partnerships
Amidst such a scenario, to further ‘Global Britain’ and its focus on strengthening partnerships, impetus has been given to improving bilateral economic and defence ties with the Quad, especially as the quadrilateral swiftly emerges as the Indo-Pacific’s most pivotal dialogue grouping. Herein, building on the importance it has accorded to middle and regional powers in the IR, the UK has already signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Japan. This was the first trade deal signed by the UK as an “independent trading nation” and cemented the potential of ‘Global Britain’ for Asia. Meanwhile, London’s bid to join the Tokyo-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) also showcases the focus it is according to entering Asian markets, especially as “drivers of growth in the global economy” shift to the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, as the UK continues negotiating a trade deal with India, it has elevated its ties with New Delhi to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership while the adoption of the Roadmap 2030 has further highlighted UK-India ties as a “global force for good”. Australia-UK ties have also seen the signing of a ‘world-class’ trade deal while amidst delays between the US-UK FTA, London has sought to sign trade engagements with individual US states as it waits on Washington.
Beyond such successes, new avenues of economic entry into the Indo-Pacific remain. The potential of ‘Quad Plus’, which must evolve into a rotational membership, can also be tapped into by a global UK. Moreover, even as 2022 must see focus on the completion of pending FTA’s with Quad states, the inclusion of Taiwan as a key economic partner for the UK is needed. This momentum can be built with semiconductor supply chain diversification. The UK is not a vital player in the global semiconductor industry, but as it houses centrally positioned companies for the same, ‘Global Britain’ must lead the way for expansion of relatively small trade patterns between London and Taipei. Furthermore, building on the UK’s invite to India, Australia and South Korea for the Group of Seven (G7), the engagement with these countries must enter a more direct and reciprocal connection. This can find linkages between domestic ventures of the three countries, like South Korea’s New Southern Policy and ‘Korean New Deal’ with ‘Global Britain’. Furthermore, the UK’s overdependence on China has been identified as a “threat to national security” by Britain’s strategic circles. The UK has hence begun diversifying its supply chains and initiatives like the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) to emerge as strong opportunities. Synergy between SCRI and Global Britain can lead to the opening up of Indo-Pacific and Asian markets for Britain, while allowing the Australia-Japan-India (AJI) trilateral to expand the initiative into Europe. Importantly, the SCRI could emerge as a common area of collaboration driven by AJI with the UK and the EU that allows for a thaw in the post-Brexit Brussels-London relationship.
On the defence and security front, the signing of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security pact has been welcomed by the Johnson government in its eagerness to advance a “Global Britain”. The UK has emerged as the biggest winner of AUKUS; the pact led to a major upset in US-France ties as it allowed Australia to renege on its bilateral submarine deal with Paris. Australia opted instead to sign on with the US and the UK, who will now provide Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines. Diplomatically and militarily, AUKUS has been a major victory for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and will define the UK’s future in the region for the next decade.
Thinking outside the box?
Ultimately, AUKUS has served a three-pronged goal: strengthening London’s role as a serious defence actor in the Indo-Pacific region; marking the UK as a critical competitor for EU states post-Brexit in the maritime security domain; and showing to China the strength of the US-UK alliance as ties with Beijing worsen. Moreover, the pact has dampened the trans-Atlantic alliance between the EU and the US, the benefits of which could be sown by London in the defence domain. Concurrently, India-UK are set to focus on improving defence ties while London and Tokyo have begun talks on “deepening” their security relationship; these narratives must draw continued attention that could emerge as a trilateral maritime exercise between London-Delhi-Tokyo with a focus on their extended interests in the Indo-Pacific.
Such a trilateral could also be viewed in line with a potential UK-India-France synergy; despite challenges emerging from AUKUS and Brexit, both Paris and London have similar focuses vis-à-vis Indo-Pacific security. India can act as a medium to build a maritime democracy nexus between the three that stands tall in the region in a show of unity. Regionally, the UK has already deployed two warships on a permanent basis to the Indo-Pacific; even as these have been termed ‘less-capable’ and ‘no threat’ by China, the move shows London’s resolve to only further its active military maritime presence in the region, adding to maritime exercises it is already conducting with regional partners. Under ‘Global Britain’, the need now must be to build on capacity building measures which provide better maneuverability by building on London’s traditional maritime prowess.
Another important and new avenue for Global Britain to consider, especially vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific, is linking itself more deeply to the UK’s Commonwealth framework. This can serve as a multilateral gathering that builds the execution of common economic, non-conventional security and people-people connect targets in the region, strengthening the backdrop for further synergy in concurrent defence and security centric domains. It must be remembered that the Commonwealth of Nations is ultimately a political association of former British colonies; it connects fifty-four countries across four continents and the Pacific region, being well-placed to further London’s influence. Quad states of Australia and India –as Commonwealth countries –can guide the frameworks linkage with Asia and the Pacific, especially vis-à-vis littoral states, if the same is pushed forward under a Global Britain ambit in their bilateral partnerships with London.
Here, Australia —itself a part of the Commonwealth —emerges as one of the most crucial partners as most Pacific Commonwealth countries fall in Australia’s eastern Pacific Ocean. Canberra’s Pacific Step-Up further offers deeper avenues of collaboration amidst its focus on Pacific Island littorals. Under the Commonwealth framework, with the British monarch as the head of state, critical British Overseas Territories (BOTs) like the Pitcairn Islands (which is the sole UK BOT in the Pacific Ocean) and British Indian Ocean Territory can receive a deeper maritime security and geoeconomics focus. A Commonwealth driven focus on the region could also add another layer to the UK-ASEAN linkage. The decision by Boris Johnson in 2020 to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) into the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) is already well placed to guide the logistic implementation of such an outlook. The Commonwealth framework could allow for a connect between London’s Indian Ocean focus and the states in the Pacific that have deep rooted ties with Britain as former colonies.
A dedicated focus on ‘Global Britain’ to continue building it as a name synonymous with London’s post-Brexit identity in the international order is crucial. For a truly ‘global’ vision, the need for implementation to be comprehensive is vital, and the promotion of scholarship to further how this goal can be achieved vis-à-vis specific Indo-Pacific and Asian states must be extended. As London’s role in the region grows, the geo-political and geo-economic strategization of ‘Global Britain’ are critical avenues that will predict its future trajectory, especially in the backdrop of a rapidly evolving regional and international order and deteriorating UK-China nexus.
Eerishika Pankaj (@eerishika) is Head of Research and Operations Director at New Delhi based think-tank, Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). She is also an Editorial and Research Assistant to the Series Editor for Routledge Series on Think Asia, a Young Leader in the 2020 cohort of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program and is a Commissioning Editor with E-International Relations for their Political Economy section.
The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.
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