Global Britain: UK’s Engagement in the Indo-Pacific

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Disclaimer: This post reflects solely the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors

One year has passed since the UK Government published the “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” – often referred to as Integrated Review – as an ambitious vision for the post-Brexit era. In the foreword of the review, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson states that the UK will showcase its leadership in the international arena. Particularly, the Integrated Review repeatedly underlines the geopolitical importance of the Indo-Pacific region, and it pledges to “pursue deeper engagement” in the region. 

This article intends to briefly highlight the UK’s activities and achievements over the past year, and it will also illustrate how the UK has been tightening its  relationship with strategic partners in the region.

Behind the UK’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific

Holding 60% of the world population and global wealth, the Indo-Pacific became the world’s economic “centre of gravity”. Particularly, the rise of China has been so remarkable that no explanation is needed. The UK had been expanding its ties with China for the past decade, and China became the UK’s largest single import market in mid-2021, replacing Germany. However, China’s recent high-profile and assertive behaviors on various occasions made the UK call China a “systemic competitor”, criticizing it for jeopardizing Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy, and for alleged human rights violation in Xinjiang. On the other hand, cooperation with China is pivotal in tackling challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Therefore, the UK needs to stand against any threats to its security and values including democracy, rule of law, and individual liberty, while ensuring economic interests and cooperation with China on various agendas.

G7 Cornwall Summit 

In the middle of the global health crisis of COVID-19, the UK hosted the G7 Summit in 2021. The leaders of the seven member countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US, plus the European Union (EU)) bound by shared values, met in Cornwall in June. In addition, Australia, India, South Africa, and South Korea were invited as guests. Among various topics discussed, including recovery from COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, the countries reaffirmed, the importance of maintaining a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific in accordance with the rule of law. In this context, the countries called on China to “participate constructively in the rule-based international system” bringing up the Hong Kong and Xinjiang cases.

Deployment of Carrier Strike Group 2021

Soon after the release of the Integrated Review, the Carrier Strike Group (CSG2021) spearheaded by HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest warship ever constructed in the UK, entered the Indian Ocean in July 2021 and sailed around the Indo-Pacific region. The deployment was intended to demonstrate the UK’s capabilities and interoperability to respond to any threats through carrying out numerous engagements with its allies and partners in the region. Most remarkably, the fleet performed an intensive joint naval exercise in collaboration with Japan, the Netherlands, and the US, in addition to a series of engagements with Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam as well as with India. The deployment became a symbolic milestone for the UK in increasing its involvement in the Indo-Pacific region.

Strengthening Cooperation with Allies and Partners

Given that the UK is geographically distant from the Indo-Pacific, tight-knit strategic partnership with the regional players is the key to expanding its presence. Some of the most important partners of the UK include the US, India, and Japan.

United States

The UK sees its bilateral relationship with the US as “the most important strategic ally and partner.” The two states have been taking leadership in the realm of global security for a long time through various multilateral alliance such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), AUKUS, and the Five Eyes. 

On 7-8 March 2022, the UK and the US held high-level consultations on the Indo-Pacific. According to the Joint Statement, representatives from London and Washington D.C. “resolved to broaden and deepen their alignment and cooperation on and in the region” ranging from military cooperation, economic engagement, the Clean Green Initiatives and Build Back Better World (B3W) agendas to emerging technologies. Particularly, both states noted that they are “preparing to meet the challenge of systemic competition with China”. They promised to tighten the relationship with India, in which a “significant diplomatic divergence” which has lately been highlighted regarding the political stance on Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.

India

PM Boris Johnson remarked that “[t]he UK’s partnership with India is a beacon in these stormy seas. Our collaboration on the issues that matter to both our countries, from climate change to energy security and defence, is of vital importance as we look to the future.” He visited India to have a conference with its Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi on 21-22 April 2022, in which they discussed the post-Brexit trade agreement, investment, and green energy issues. 

However, the PM’s visit reportedly resulted in achieving a “relatively modest” outcome because of the complexities the bilateral relationship is experiencing. In its report titled “Operation Z”, the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) warned that “Russia has established mechanisms for laundering [components for military equipment] through third countries” including India. 

On top of that, the democratic values in India are now downgraded and endangered. Although India is often referred to as the world’s ‘largest democracy’, with PM Modi elected under democratic system, the latest report of Variety of Democracy (V-Dem) ranked India as an “electoral autocracy” owing to the discriminatory policies including harassment of journalists.  The concerns over the partnership with India are being raised.

Japan

Japan is one of the UK’s “closest strategic partners” in the Indo-Pacific region. Pursuing its “Global Britain” ambitions, the UK is now seeking for an upgraded relationship with Japan. In terms of security cooperation, the two states hold regular bilateral “2+2” ministerial meetings where the Ministers for Foreign Affair and Defence from London and Tokyo convene to share and exchange information, and develop discussion on security matters. 

The implementation of the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology in 2014 enabled Japan to contribute to the promotion and maintenance of international peace and security more actively through cooperation and joint research and development projects with its partners. In this context, the UK and Japan signed an agreement for defence technology partnership this February. The two states will jointly develop sensor technology for future combat aircraft for their next-generation fighter projects – the UK’s Team Tempest project, and Japan’s F-X programme.

Conclusion: What’s the Next Step?

The UK has made substantive progress in the first year of implementation through the efforts illustrated above. Establishing a new network for the post-Brexit era while tightening the age-old relationships with its allies and partners has formed the basis to achieve its ambitious ‘Global Britain’ vision in the Indo-Pacific region. On the other hand, the recent deviation of India suggests the importance of ensuring that the alliances and partnerships be strictly value-oriented in the rapidly changing dynamics of the international system.

Now that another deployment of Carrier Strike Group for this year is confirmed by the British Ministry of Defence, the UK may possibly send another deployment to the Indo-Pacific region. Combining with the other achievements the UK recently made, such as moving into the second and final stage to accede to the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), a trade agreement of between eleven countries around the Pacific, the UK’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific is most likely to remain strong or be even greater this year.

Such efforts of expanding its roles and influence in the region may be bolstered through deepening the relationship with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). The UK Mission to ASEAN was inaugurated only a couple of years ago at the end of 2019. Similarly, the UK became the ASEAN Dialogue Partner in August 2021, which seeks for a mutually beneficial cooperation. Although these are understood to be a positive indication of their relationship, a deeper and wider cooperation will boost the UK’s regional influence while contributing to defence capacity building across ASEAN.

By Ayumi Koide,

Ayumi is currently studying MSc Security Studies of Department of Political Science at University College London (UCL). She is interested in politics, international relations, and international security.

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