THE WEST TURNS TO FACE THE EAST
James Landale, diplomatic correspondent, BBC News says the UK isn’t the only country that is looking to the Indo-Pacific
It used to be called the Far East, a name that for a certain generation of Englishmen conjured up a vision of exotic opportunity, a place with boundless possibility for adventure and commercial gain, whether as a merchant on the high seas or a moneyman in the bourses of Hong Kong or Shanghai. Such imperial days are, of course, long gone. The Greenwich-centric phrase has passed into history and one talks these days instead of the Indo-Pacific. And yet once again British eyes are turning east.
The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, can hardly open his mouth without talking about the UK’s new Indo-Pacific strategy. He refers to it as the UK’s ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. It is not clear why he uses the word ‘tilt’. The Americans speak of a ‘pivot to Asia’, the French of an ‘Indo-Pacific axis’, yet the Foreign Secretary has chosen a word that could leave some readers thinking that, like Don Quixote, he plans to tilt at Britain’s imaginary enemies in the region with a diplomatic lance. This is not so. He wants the UK to ‘lean in’ to the Indo-Pacific, to use the Whitehall jargon, to improve Britain’s links with the region. So for now, tilt it is and what a tilting has begun!
When he became Foreign Secretary last year, Mr Raab chose deliberately that his first trip overseas would be to Thailand for a meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). This year, in February, he visited Australia, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. In September, he travelled to South Korea and Vietnam where he took part in a virtual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers.
In an appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee in October, Mr Raab made clear the Indo-Pacific would be a central part of the government’s review of its foreign and security policy, and its chairmanship of the G7 group of nations in 2021. He told MPs the region “proactively and strategically would be my priority for Global Britain.”
He said: “One thing that is really important coming out of the integrated review is the Indo-Pacific tilt… That is where I think a lot of the opportunities and the risk management in the next 20 to 30 years will be.”
First up, he said there were potential trade benefits: “I can see all sorts of reasons for it – growth opportunities in trade, investment and business over the next 10, 20 or 30 years. For SMEs and UK exports, there are huge growth opportunities.”
But second, he argued there were geo-strategic reasons for the UK to focus on the region, to build alliances with similar countries with similar values: “I have lamented a little bit the intellectual laziness or lack of bandwidth in the debate on foreign policy, which is always around the very big players. Of course, they all matter, whether it is the EU, China or the US, but there is also a whole range of mid-sized players who have wide economic and political considerations and values that overlap with us.” He pointed to South Korea which, he said, shared a similar voting record to the UK in international organisations. He cited Vietnam which had shared concerns with the UK over enforcing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In substantive terms, the initial ambitions of the UK’s Indo-Pacific strategy are twofold: to join ASEAN as a dialogue partner (something the UK lost when it left the EU) and to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partners, the regional free trade alliance known by its mouthful of an acronym, the CPTPP. Neither ambition is automatic: there is currently a moratorium on ASEAN taking on any new dialogue partners. And it is not yet clear if Britain’s possession of four thinly-populated volcanic islands at Pitcairn in the southern Pacific will be enough to persuade the existing 11 CPTPP members to make space for post-Brexit Britain. But officials are hopeful progress can be made on both fronts.
So that is the UK’s strategy. But there are wrinkles. First, the UK is coming rather late to the party. The United States has for some years refocused its attention to Asia and the Pacific, a trend begun long before Donald Trump was a twinkle in the electoral college’s eye. The US, Japan, Australia and India have long cooperated in the region via what is known as ‘the Quad’, a key forum for shaping allied policy. In September, Germany published its own Indo-Pacific strategy, focused on shoring up the international rules-based order in the region. The French have been developing their own ‘axis’ with India and Australia. In October, the Quai D’Orsay appointed its first ever Ambassador to the Indo-Pacific, Christophe Penot, their former homme in Canberra. By contrast, Britain does not even have a designated minister for the Indo-Pacific.
Second, there is a question mark over what is driving Britain’s renewed interest in the region. Some sceptics suspect the strategy is a hangover from the early Brexit arguments about the opportunity it would give the UK to develop a buccaneering, independent, free trade, Global Britain foreign policy. To some, this had rather too many echoes of post-imperial glory, as desire to recreate Empire 2.0. But to others, this was a displacement exercise, designed to avoid having to think about what relationship the UK should have with its more important neighbours.
But these questions aside, the UK Indo-Pacific strategy is slowly emerging alongside those of many other countries. There are clearly advantages to improving trade links, establishing deeper alliances with like-minded liberal democracies, finding new ways of cooperating on issues of mutual interest. Yet much of these arguments dance around the main reason why the world’s focus is heading east. It is the actions of Beijing that have galvanised this global geopolitical rethink. China’s growing power is forcing countries to join together and come up with new ways of engaging with and constraining the coming superpower. How should the West respond to China’s military assertiveness in the South China Sea, its economic ambitions in the Belt and Road Initiative, its debt diplomacy in developing nations, its Wolf Warrior diplomacy on social media, its acquisition of intellectual property by suspect means? How should the West engage with a China that will soon be the world’s biggest economy, the biggest investor in clean energy, the dominant player in the international rules-based system, the driving force of the revolution that is artificial intelligence? The answers to these questions will come only if the West turns to face the East. These strategies might be named after the Indo-Pacific. But in truth, they are all aimed at one country that lies between those two great oceans.
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