In November 2020 the Conservative think tank Policy Exchange published a paper proposing a mighty role for Britain in the Indo-Pacific. It argued that Britain – an emphatically non-Indo-Pacific country – should barge in and “foster a community of free and independent nations committed to upholding peace, stability, prosperity and access in the region”. It should do this, the report went on, by “offering a vision of a common strategic future built around shared principles and focused on shared challenges”.
You do not have to be a Kipling-spouting, empire-nostalgic Brexiteer to see the case for such ambitions. The future of the world economy will be forged in the Indo-Pacific and Britain might as well seek a share of that growing pie. US foreign policy is increasingly focused on that arena; witness President Biden’s joint op-ed on 13 March with the leaders of Australia, Japan and India calling for a “free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region”. Being present in that part of the world ought to make Britain more relevant in Washington. And pivoting to the Indo-Pacific would also retrofit some geopolitical sense on to the decision to leave the EU: out with France, Germany, Spain and Poland; in with Canada, South Korea, Australia and India!
All of these arguments have gained momentum in recent months. Britain has rightly offered citizenship to residents of an increasingly autocratic Hong Kong. It aspires to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which was signed in 2016. It wants to use its leadership of the G7 to turn the gathering of big Western economies into a values-based D10 of ten democracies that would also take in India, South Korea and Australia.
On 16 March the British government drew all of these together in its Integrated Review of foreign, defence and security policy, which was pitched as a “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific and used the term “Indo-Pacific” 32 times against just 15 mentions for the Euro-Atlantic region.
Yet for all the glamour of the Indo-Pacific tilt, it has its limits. Britain is not the US. Where Biden can chide Narendra Modi’s India on its failing democracy with few big consequences for his country’s economy (India’s largest trade partner), Britain (India’s 18th largest trade partner) cannot do values-led diplomacy in Delhi in the same way. Where Biden can take on China in geopolitical competition and pay the price in economic uncoupling, a European economy that has just quit its own continent’s economic bloc and is looking for trade partners may have less leverage. Will Britain have the sort of Indo-Pacific naval capacity needed to secure shipping lanes? Will it square up to China if it came to a conflict? Probably not.
Whisper it softly, but there is another arena in which the UK can have far more real geopolitical impact: its own European periphery. Consider the map. To Britain’s north-east: Russia, which recently committed chemical warfare on British soil and whose malign kleptocratic reach extends deep into British politics. Protests roil Belarus to the south, Ukraine remains fragile, and the Black Sea region – a bridgehead for China’s Belt and Road Initiative – is shaped by the tense balance between Turkey, Russia and Iran. Humanitarian and security crises burn on in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya and the Sahel region.
These are all areas where the Biden administration, now focused on the Pacific and on its own internal challenges, is less willing to be involved and where it is looking to European allies – especially Britain – to step up. They are also arenas where the UK has long-term interests. The Integrated Review rightly defines Russia as an “active threat”. Chaos in the Middle East can spill over on to British streets in the form of terror and migration. The most significant shift of the 21st century for the UK might prove to be not US-Chinese rivalry but the rise of nearby Africa and trans-Mediterranean relations. British babies born today may live to see a world in which Africa, not Asia, is the world’s most populous continent.
These geopolitical arenas are also ones in which the UK can have a big impact and provide value to its alliances and allies. Britain has significant leverage over Russia’s kleptocracy if it chooses to use it. In Estonia it leads Nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence mission, launched after the invasion of eastern Ukraine. The UK is trusted by Turks and Kurds (allowing it to play a crucial role in talks between the two), is a major player in the Iran nuclear deal and can still act as a serious broker in conflicts such as Israel/Palestine, Yemen and Ethiopia. It remains involved in UN- and US-led military operations in the Sahel. And it has a disproportionate soft power and economic reach in sub-Saharan Africa.
What makes a post-Brexit British pivot to Europe’s fringes awkward is that it would involve more and not less cooperation with London’s erstwhile EU allies. Germany is a crucial partner on relations with Russia and Turkey. France is integral to any British action in west Africa and in parts of the Middle East. Italy and Spain are serious and mature players in trans-Mediterranean security and economic cooperation.
A Britain truly confident about its new role would have added Spain – a dictatorship-turned-liberal-democracy with extensive links to Latin America and a record of nuanced diplomacy in north Africa – to its D10 proposal and made it a broader D11.
Should British foreign policy really be shaped by retroactive geopolitical justifications for Brexit? Can it just sling its hook and reposition itself on the other side of the world? Surely not. Global Britain will be decided not in the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea, but in the Baltic, Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
This column appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold