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Tuesday, Oct 19, 2021

Britain 2030: How far will UK foreign policy tilt toward the Asia Pacific?

Britain 2030: How far will UK foreign policy tilt toward the Asia Pacific?

Boris Johnson's victory in dragging the UK out of the EU last year was supposed to herald a new dawn for the country's foreign policy.
Boris Johnson’s victory in dragging the UK out of the EU was supposed to herald a new dawn for the country’s foreign policy, with his “Global Britain” agenda at the fore. It is perhaps unsurprising we are not much clearer about what this phrase means 20 months on, despite the release of a much heralded integrated review of foreign and defence policy.

The existential question of what the UK stands for on the global stage is hardly a new one. The country has grappled with this problem since the British Empire was gradually dismantled after World War II, with the strategy continually changing over the decades.

At the turn of the millennium New Labour saw the UK’s global role as guiding the direction of the EU, while also flexing its military muscle in stopping crimes against humanity abroad. Brexit, and the many antecedents to the 2016 vote, has left this vision in tatters and is yet to be replaced with a comprehensive alternative.

Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, believes British foreign policy will be rudderless for the foreseeable future.

“Since the Syria civil war vote in 2013 [to not intervene with troops on the ground], British policy has become very ad hoc and I think that adhoc-ery will continue,” he said.

“Come 2030, British foreign policy will still look reactive.”

Early attempts by Johnson and foreign secretary Dominic Raab at changing this have been focused around looking to the East for new partnerships in countries like India and Japan.

The government’s integrated review earlier this year set out an ambition to tilt the UK toward the Indo-Pacific to capitalise on its high-growth economies, while also strengthening ties with potential bulwarks against an increasingly hostile China.

The review argued that “great power competition is unlikely to mean a return to Cold War-style blocs” and that “the influence of middle powers is likely to grow in the 2020s, particularly when they act together”.

The UK’s recent commitment to keep two aircraft carriers in East Asian waters permanently is an example of this tilt toward the region.

Another is the UK’s application to enter the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trading bloc, which includes nations like Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Canada and Mexico.

The bloc makes up around 13 per cent of global GDP, however this figure is likely to increase over time as countries like Vietnam become more economically developed.

International trade secretary Liz Truss has often batted away projections that show membership of the CPTPP will yield little economic benefit in the short-term and instead argues that it is a long-term strategic move.

“This part of the world is where Britain’s greatest opportunities lie. We left the EU with the promise of deepening links with old allies and fast-growing consumer markets beyond Europe,” Truss said in June.

Capital Economics’ chief economist Neil Shearing remains unconvinced.

“I think there will be less change then is being touted and anticipated by Brexit optimists,” he said.

“The gravity model, which is used by the Treasury, assumes you do most of your trade depending on trading partner proximity. There’s 1,000 years of economic history to back this up – while comparative advantage works in text books, it doesn’t explain why so much of our trade is with Europe.”

It could be argued that the larger priority in strengthening partnerships in the Asia Pacific is about creating networks to counter China’s growing influence. The UK-China relationship has taken a sharp downward turn over the past two years, with the government sanctioning Beijing for its democracy clampdown in Hong Kong and ethnic cleansing campaign against Uyghur Muslims.

The US has also rallied for the UK to be a part of a western alliance that counters China’s influence, especially after Beijing has begun to display expansionist tendencies in the South China Sea.

Foreign Affairs Committee chair, and Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat said: “The investment in Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is a good priority and I think what they’re doing in terms of the carrier deployment is also important in changing the way we’re seen in the region.

“There is a strong element, of course, in ensuring we maintain an independence from China, but it’s also about ensuring that countries with a choice to make about a rules-based system system [in Asia] are open to it.”

Despite all this, China was labelled only as a competitor in the government’s integrated review this year and not a systemic threat, like Russia and Iran. Ministers have also been quick to say that there is no alternative to having a deep economic relationship with China, despite its increasing recalcitrance on the world stage.

This attempt to face both ways on the most pressing foreign policy issue of our generation is an example of the rudderless nature of foreign policy that Menon says has taken hold over the past decade. He said these kind of contradictions have been endemic in the current government’s statements on foreign policy.

“The integrated review stresses that foreign policy might be Indo-Pacific leaning, but that our security priority remains in our own neighbourhood. The curious paradox is that, despite this, we are allergic to working with EU on foreign and security policy,” Menon said.

Johnson may want to point the UK more in the direction of Asia, but its relationship with the EU will likely still remain larger and more influential by 2030. Economic interdependence – half of the UK’s exports go to the EU – and security concerns will ensure that the EU will overshadow new post-Brext partnerships at least in the short-term.

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