Features | Diplomacy

‘Global Britain’: The UK in the Indo-Pacific

While its involvement is broadly welcomed in the region, the U.K. must first clarify what its Indo-Pacific presence will entail.

By Anisa Heritage and Pak K. Lee for
‘Global Britain’: The UK in the Indo-Pacific

Local students wave British flags at Britain’s Prince William on a boat, foreground, at Hamarikyu Gardens in Tokyo, February 26, 2015.

Credit: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

Since 2016, the phrase “Global Britain” has been used to signal the ambition and intent of the United Kingdom to seek “an independent voice” in international diplomacy outside and beyond the European Union. But to date the phrase remains deliberately vague. While ambiguity might bring flexibility of action, will its focus be clear enough to deliver a strategy from which clear foreign policy priorities outside the EU can be set and delivered?

Unlike France, Germany, and the Netherlands, the U.K. has not announced an official Indo-Pacific strategy. Nonetheless, there are signs of increased British activity in the Indo-Pacific that endorse the U.K.’s three foreign policy objectives of promoting prosperity, protecting the rules-based international system, and being a “force for good” in the world. Questions remain as to whether these steps denote a significant reorientation of foreign policy, and more importantly whether regional states, especially China, which still regards Britain as a colonial state, welcome its return.

The World Beyond the EU

The current Integrated Review of Security, Defense, and Development Policy, the most comprehensive review of its kind undertaken in the U.K., was heralded by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a much-needed overhaul that would consider “the totality of global opportunities and challenges the U.K. faces and determining how the whole of government can be structured, equipped and mobilized to meet them.” The first House of Commons report on the integrated review in August 2020 acknowledged that Brexit and a more isolationist U.S. have challenged the U.K.’s position as the bridge between the EU and the United States. The report also recognized the vulnerabilities of a middle power navigating an increasingly competitive and tense international environment. Although the U.K.’s foreign policy strategy will be officially revealed later in 2021, evidence already points to a substantial orientation of its security, development, and trade policies toward the Indo-Pacific – a tilt welcomed by many U.K. partners in the region.

Prior to the U.K.’s official exit from the EU, the Johnson government started pursuing partnerships and initiatives beyond EU-27 collective positions. It issued a joint statement on Hong Kong in coordination with other Five Eyes partners in May 2020, before the EU released its own statement in July. Johnson is also leading an initiative to build a “D10” alliance of democracies – the G-7 plus Australia, South Korea, and India – to create alternative suppliers of 5G equipment and other technology to reduce China’s domination of global digital infrastructure. It is as yet unclear how the proposed D10 arrangements might synchronize with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s plans to convene a Summit for Democracy.

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In the trade sphere, the U.K. is seriously considering an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). CPTPP members support a U.K. membership application and discussions are said to be underway with the bloc at senior official level. Membership of the CPTPP would globally signal the U.K.’s intention to “embed its economic future” in this strategically important region and enable a significant role in the writing the rules for the digital economy.

Playing Catch Up in the Indo-Pacific

A recent report by the Henry Jackson Society notes that the U.K. is playing catch-up in the military sphere. It has moved to strengthen security cooperation with several Indo-Pacific countries, including Japan and the members of the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA). The U.K. also continues to maintain a military outpost in Brunei and access to a naval support facility in Singapore.

Dubbed by Carlyle A. Thayer a “quiet achiever,” the FDPA has since 1971 brought the U.K. together with four Indo-Pacific Commonwealth members  – Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore – to enhance the regional security of Southeast Asia. In December 2020, the FDPA foreign ministers issued a joint statement, which committed them to continue with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterterrorism, and maritime security whilst “retaining its core focus on conventional warfare.” Through its FDPA and Five Eyes commitments, the U.K. maintains a strategic foothold in the Indo-Pacific.

Plans are underway to deploy the Royal Navy (RN)’s biggest flotilla of warships in a generation to the Indo-Pacific region in 2021. The carrier strike group (CSG) will be led by the RN’s largest-ever aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. The presence of HMS Queen Elizabeth, according to Vice Admiral Jerry Kyd, the RN’s fleet commander, sets the tone for British strategic relevance on the global stage by fulfilling various roles including “strategic messaging, power projection, naval diplomacy, and trade promotion.” The CSG presence expands on the five warships it has deployed to the region since 2018, with each sailing through the South China Sea.

China: “Global Britain” Is Shorthand for a Return of Colonialism

A more overt U.K. regional presence would, however, likely be poorly received in Beijing. The Chinese government has warned the U.K. that basing an aircraft carrier in Asia would be a “very dangerous move.” Sino-British relations have also sharply deteriorated since the unfolding of a political crisis in Hong Kong in 2019 and especially after the introduction of a national security law for Hong Kong last June.

The Chinese official narrative is inclined to perceive the return of a British presence in Asia through the lens of neocolonialism. In July, when British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced the suspension of the U.K.-Hong Kong extradition treaty and an arms embargo against Hong Kong, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by urging the U.K. “to give up its fantasies of continuing colonial influence in Hong Kong and immediately correct its mistakes.” On November 23, the U.K.’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) released its “Six-Monthly Report on Hong Kong: January to June 2020” and on the same day, the Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region warned the U.K., “Wake up and stop the old colonial dream of interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs.”

Establishing Clear Foreign Policy Priorities Is Crucial

Despite the U.K.’s commitment to enlarge its economic and strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific, the region’s complex geopolitical challenges require careful strategic consideration. A set of policies is required to clarify the U.K.’s position on China and offer a whole-of-government approach to the Indo-Pacific region to give focus to the U.K.’s regional trade, military, and diplomatic engagement.

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As the U.K. is outside the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, agreed in principle last month, it will need to steer an almost impossible course between negotiating a trade deal with a nationalistic China and challenging China over Hong Kong and its human rights abuses in Xinjiang. China’s responses to Australian criticisms over its initial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate how tricky this path is to negotiate in practice.

Beyond trade, U.K. plans for a post-Brexit foreign policy rebalance to the Indo-Pacific need to be backstopped by a careful calculation of where resources can best be utilized in support of British national interests. For instance, the British Armed Forces lack the capacity and sustainability needed for simultaneous power projection to several regions and for the time being, the U.K. will inevitably remain strategically oriented toward the European continent and its NATO partners.

In sum, the Johnson government has signaled Global Britain’s intention to have a more visible and active presence in the Indo-Pacific region. While its presence is broadly welcomed in the region, the U.K. must first clarify what its regional presence will entail. There are obvious geographic and financial limitations to the U.K.’s ambition in sustaining a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific that will need to be balanced alongside its current military commitments.

Second, the U.K. should recognize the impact of its colonial legacy. China’s “colonial” narrative often connects Britain to the Opium Wars. This may also influence India’s perception of a Global Britain, as bitter memories of British imperialism play a vital role in constituting a shared postcolonial identity for the two Asian giants.

Anisa Heritage is a senior lecturer in the Defence and International Affairs Department, Faculty for the Study of Leadership, Security and Warfare at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS), U..K She is a Research Fellow of the Global Europe Centre, University of Kent, U.K. The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author and not those of RMAS, U.K. MoD, or HMG.

Pak K. Lee is a senior lecturer in Chinese politics and international relations in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. His current research interest is order contestation between China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).

Their recent co-authored book examines the South China Sea disputes from the perspectives of order contestation and ontological security.