One year ago, on March 16, 2021, the United Kingdom published its “comprehensive vision” for its engagement with the world post-Brexit, titled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.” One of its striking elements was the so-called “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific. The U.K. and United States’ recent high-level consultation suggests an ongoing commitment to the region, despite the potential for a renewed focus on the Atlantic following rising tensions with Russia over U.K.raine.
In the Integrated Review, the Indo-Pacific is framed as a critical region where the “competitive age” is playing out, requiring active U.K involvement to shape international order and support “open societies.” In security terms, the Indo-Pacific is framed as a “crucible” for broader issues including the environment and maritime insecurity. It also lays out the need for diplomatic and trading ties with key partners and institutions to develop regional resilience and order. On this basis, the Integrated Review makes clear that the U.K.’s approach to the Indo-Pacific needs to be holistic, and ambitiously declares it will be “the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific.”
How might we assess the U.K.’s Indo-Pacific tilt one year on?
Despite the stated intention of holistic engagement, much of the emphasis so far seems to be placed on relatively narrow defense goals. The flagship announcement concerning the region has been AU.K.US, an agreement between the U.S., U.K., and Australia to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarine capability. The sudden announcement of this agreement was followed by a less than enthusiastic response from Southeast Asian policymakers, with many expressing concerns about the impact on regional stability amid escalating China-U.S. rivalry. This is likely to be heightened with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that U.S. and U.K. submarines will be able to operate out of Australia.
Other defense measures, such as the deployment of the U.K. Carrier Strike Group and the announcement of an enduring forward deployment of U.K. naval assets, have garnered significant attention. They also feed into existing concerns within the region of the potential destabilizing impact of external navies engaging in Freedom of Navigation patrols.
These actions all have one thing in common. They are shorter-term defense engagements that reflect pre-determined priorities more in line with the U.S. vision of the Indo-Pacific than those emanating from the region. One year on, with little progress in other areas, these defense-focused moves also risk undermining the broader goals of the Integrated Review. Implementation of the more holistic approach, centering diplomatic ties and developing regional resilience, requires an openness to input from the region when it comes to shaping priorities. Effort on this front has so far been lackluster, especially in Southeast Asia, where the attainment of ASEAN Dialogue Partner status has not been followed by a clear plan of what comes next.
This is not to say the U.K. is completely lacking when it comes to developing regional relationships. It has established forums for cooperation such as the Malaysia-United Kingdom Strategic Dialogue and U.K.-Indonesia Joint Economic and Trade Committee, and engaged in early visits to ASEAN countries. But so far, these pale in comparison to the efforts of other powers, not least because the U.K. is playing catch up. The U.K. is far from establishing tangible frameworks of cooperation such as Australia’s ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and nor is it laying out a vision for these in future.
Maritime security serves as an indicative sector where the U.K. is falling behind. Based on the above deployments, it would seem the U.K. is particularly active in this sector. Maritime security is not just about Navies, however. The U.K. sees maritime security in a much broader manner, putting an emphasis on maritime crimes and emerging environmental issues. On this the “tilt” shows potential. The U.K. is active in regional measures to tackle maritime crimes, such as The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) and the Combined Maritime Forces. The deployment of the HMS Tamar and HMS Spey to the region is also promising, with the patrol vessels delivering aid to Tonga and vaccines to the Pitcairn Islands, while also patrolling against Illegal fishing in Marine Protected Areas.
Where the U.K. is less effective is delivering on its goals of developing stronger partnerships with regional countries, whether through the capacity building or knowledge exchange that regional powers want. In contrast, the EU recently ran exercises with the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard, giving them access to the EU’s information-sharing tool IORIS.
Such gaps in implementation matter. As of yet, the U.K. is not winning ASEAN over. In the 2022 State of Southeast Asia survey of policy and opinion makers, only 1.8 percent of respondents mentioned the U.K. when asked who they have the most confidence in with respect to championing free trade. Only 3.4 percent of respondents mentioned the U.K. in terms of leadership in upholding the rules-based order and international law. This is slightly ahead of Australia and New Zealand, but well below the U.S., EU, Japan, and even China. The responses to various questions in the survey further reveal a more nuanced and complex approach toward China and regional order than that outlined in the U.K.’s Indo-Pacific vision.
If the U.K. continues putting defense goals ahead of regional relationships, it is likely to alienate key partners who are already concerned that the region is losing agency. Indeed, the newly inaugurated U.K.-U.S. dialogue on the Indo-Pacific is likely to instill these fears further. While the dialogue does foreground partnerships, the declaration from the first meeting suggests that ASEAN remains a relatively low priority, being mentioned second-to-last in a long list of greater concerns including the Taiwan Strait, Hong Kong, and Pacific islands.
Ignoring the region’s priorities would be a significant flaw to the tilt, because these relationships are of primary significance – any tilt without a solid support basis risks toppling. While ASEAN centrality is open to criticism due to their poor handling of issues such as Myanmar and the South China Sea, the U.K. cannot attain its ambitious goals without regional support. What is required are clearer parameters to measure what success regarding the tilt looks like, but these parameters need to be formulated through dialogue and engagement with the region rather than only in the halls of Whitehall or with an eye across the Atlantic.
There is evidence of the U.K. reflexively considering ongoing gaps in the implementation of the tilt, with two Parliamentary committees scrutinizing the policy. One year on, however, the U.K. still needs to identify how it will attain its ambitious goals and demonstrate its ability to provide collective goods to a region that for the most part remains skeptical.