09.07.2021 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Britain’s Tilt Towards Indo-Pacific: From Words to Actions


On a number of occasions, the New Eastern Outlook has reported about the much more active and multi-faceted role the United Kingdom has been playing on the global stage in recent years, including in political, economic and defense spheres. This change occurred during the protracted process of the UK leaving the European Union, which began after the Brexit referendum had taken place on July 23, 2016.

During this entire period that ended only at the end of 2020, the British government looked for nations to establish comprehensive partnerships with. The Department for International Trade, especially created in 2016 and currently headed by Elizabeth Truss, was put in charge of economy-related (i.e. pretty much key) aspects of the search.

Almost immediately, the focus of the aforementioned department and the entire UK government became the nations with historic ties to Great Britain, i.e. Japan, India and Australia – the leading countries in the Indo-Pacific, a region becoming the center of global processes.

On September 11 of last year, a Japan-UK bilateral free trade agreement was struck during a virtual meeting between Elizabeth Truss and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. One and a half months later, the trade pact was formally signed (during a rare for current times face-to-face meeting) in Tokyo.

On both occasions, Elizabeth Truss talked about the UK seeking membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, CPTPP (an idea that has been discussed starting in 2018). The organization has 11 member nations from Asia as well as both North and South America, including Japan, which plays a leading role in the CPTPP. The agreement, which aims to promote free trade among its signatories, entered into force on January 1, 2019.

The UK government made a formal request to join the CPTPP on February 1, 2021, which was reviewed on June 2 during an online meeting of the CPTPP Commission (the organization’s decision-making body) attended by high-ranking representatives of each of the 11 member-state. The Joint Ministerial Statement issued at the end of the session clearly showed that the decision to agree to UK’s bid to begin the accession process had been unanimous.

Views on the UK becoming a CPTPP member and possible consequences of such an outcome differ. The optimism expressed by a Japanese official regarding this development in an article published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs is understandable. The acceptance of the bid from such an influential nation by an organization Japan plays a leading role in unquestionably helps raise the (already fairly high) status of the latter on the international stage.

A number of British experts have reacted in a far more subdued (or even fraught with concern) manner to the latest news. An article published by The Conversation serves as an apt example. According to its authors, it is “highly unlikely that joining the CPTPP will make a significant difference to the UK’s post-Brexit economic prospects” as the positive impact of increased trade will probably be limited.

Still, the move could have some political rewards, as the policy paper entitled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy,” published in the middle of March, indicated.

However, the aforementioned experts also see some risks to the move from a political perspective. After all, the UK government may not find it desirable if China, which has previously expressed interest in joining the CPTPP, becomes a member of the organization in the future. In fact, once US President Donald Trump withdrew from the previous version of the deal, the TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), a power vacuum was left in the region.

The United Kingdom may end up in a fairly strange and uncomfortable situation of being a member of an organization (formally labelled as a trade and economic one) comprising its main geopolitical opponent but not its key military and political ally. The current relationship between Great Britain and the PRC is fairly complex and hard to define.

The authors of The Conversation article also think that becoming a party to the CPTPP “will draw the UK into a power play between regional powers and may complicate other important alliances, including with India”. In fact, India opted out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that China plays a leading role in.

It is also worth noting that the ever changing plans recently pursued by Boris Johnson’s government abroad reflect growing domestic problems (with some arising on account of the latest Scottish Parliament election), which are getting worse owing to the negative consequences of Brexit. Focusing on foreign policy is a universal strategy used whenever it becomes unclear as to what to do on the domestic front. The current US President and leader of the Free World is following it in an exemplary fashion.

Nothing else could account for the obvious disparity between the UK’s current status on the international arena and the political, military and strategic ambitions abroad expressed by the nation’s government. It is also the only reasonable explanation for the propaganda campaign accompanying the seven-month maiden deployment on May 22 of the UK Carrier Strike Group, led by new flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. It also includes six Royal Navy ships (2 destroyers, 2 anti-submarine frigates and 2 Auxiliaries), a Royal Navy submarine, a US Navy destroyer, a frigate from the Netherlands and 10 F-36B fast jets.

The Carrier Strike Group’s 26,000-nautical-mile global tour will cover the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and South and East China Seas. It “will interact with over 40 nations” and take part in military drills involving India’s, Australia’s, Japan’s and South Korea’s armed forces.

The group will exercise its right to freedom of navigation by sailing through the South China Sea (SCS). The move could be viewed as a challenge to China’s claim to approximately 80-90% of SCS. Still, so far, there have not been any (and according to Chinese leadership, there will never be any) obstacles to navigation along the stretch of South China Sea that is part of one of the key global trading routes originating in the Persian Gulf region and Africa’s east coast.

Taking into account the tendency to provoke exhibited by the UK government (a trait it is genetically redisposed to in relation to foreign policy), the PRC leadership ought to prepare for the arrival of (uninvited) guests from afar in its coastal waters. In fact, two vessels of the Carrier Strike Group, Royal Navy’s HMS Defender and the Royal Netherlands Navy’s frigate HNLMS Evertsen, have already conducted some exercises in the Black Sea, seemingly in preparation for what is to come in the South and East China Seas.

The UK government’s motives behind the schemes implemented in the political landscape populated by limitrophe states separating the Russian Federation from “Old Europe” are quite transparent. Since the ties previously established between the latter and Russia have been severed, for the most part, the UK’s usual strategy (with its historical roots) entails countering the development of highly beneficial for “Old Europe” relations with the Russian Federation. And in order to achieve this aim, fairly fresh cannon fodder is required.

However, it remains unclear how China has managed to (truly, as mentioned before) displease the current UK leadership. After all, only 6 years ago, a visit by China’s leader Xi Jinping to the United Kingdom (David Cameron served as Prime Minister at the time) ended in success and a promise to benefit from the ‘golden era’ in ties between the two nations. It does not make sense to view the current situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang as highly problematic for the relationship.

Still, it is probably not worthwhile for the leadership of China and Russia to worry about resolving such misunderstandings nowadays. But it is crucial to recognize the need to coordinate actions in all spheres, including the economic, foreign policy and defense ones, within the framework of the bilateral relationship between China and Russia.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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