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Humphrey Hawksley is a former Beijing and Asia correspondent for the BBC. His latest book is “Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Indo-Pacific and the Challenge to American Power.”
The United Kingdom’s full separation from the European Union, due to begin on Jan. 1, is bound to be bumpy. But by shining a spotlight on Asia, London could address accusations that its foreign policy is adrift while underpinning its interests in a region where it has a chance of early success.
With care, the U.K. could quickly win new trade agreements in Asia, while positioning itself as a significant player within new multilateral alliances being formed to balance China’s expansion.
Japan, a big investor in the U.K., is a quiet mentor of this process — the first major economy to sign a post-Brexit trade deal with London, and a supporter of its request to join the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But the potential for a new U.K. Asia policy goes much further, as reflected in a report by the center-right think tank Policy Exchange, which includes a foreword by recently retired Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who writes of a “new era of innovative thinking, expansion of economic opportunity, and strengthening of stability.”
Entitled “A Very British Tilt: Toward a new U.K. strategy in the Indo-Pacific Region,” the paper argues that London should adopt a twin-track approach in Asia, focusing on prosperity and security, which would involve a larger U.K. military presence in the Indo-Pacific. To achieve this, Britain is boosting defense spending by $21 billion over the next four years, which represents a real-terms increase of more than 10%, according to the Royal United Services Institute.
A larger U.K. presence in the Indo-Pacific would bolster the U.S. argument that tensions with China are international, not bilateral, and that multilateral alliances aimed at checking Chinese expansionism are strengthening. Next year, HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, will lead a multinational strike group to the Indo-Pacific.
As it moves through the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the East China Sea, the carrier group is set to conduct exercises with the militaries of what are broadly identifying themselves as like-minded governments. These include Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, together with Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. — the four countries that compose the Quadrilateral Dialogue that is leading attempts to check China.
The U.K. retains legitimate interests in the Indo-Pacific. It is a member of the region’s multilateral defense alliance, the Five Power Defense Arrangements, set up in 1971 with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. The FPDA’s founding aim was to stop conflict around the Malay Peninsula, but it has become active in countering Beijing’s South China Sea activities. Under the agreement the U.K. keeps a naval logistics facility at Sembawang, in Singapore, and there are discussions about setting up a full British military facility in the region.
In East Asia, the U.K. retains a treaty responsibility toward Hong Kong, a British colony returned to China in 1997, until 2047. It is also a signatory to the United Nations command that oversees the 1953 Korean War armistice. And in the Indian Ocean, the U.K. controls the 640,000 sq. km British Indian Ocean Territory in the Chagos archipelago, south of the Maldives. The territory contains the Diego Garcia military base, which is leased to the U.S.
Britain is also part of the Five Eyes intelligence-gathering alliance with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S., whose governments recently issued a joint condemnation of Beijing’s crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong. Discussions are reported to be underway to bring Japan into the Five Eyes arrangement.
With the EU naming China as a systemic rival, and France also retaining territories in the region, Beijing can expect to see more European nations taking an interest in the region’s security. The sight of warships from Asia’s former colonial powers challenging Beijing’s claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea under a banner of trade protection carries echoes of the 19th century Opium Wars and what China calls a century of humiliation.
To counter this, the U.K. needs to move carefully, presenting itself less as a former colonizer than as a modern, mid-ranking power working with counterpart nations against regional hegemony.
And while Joe Biden winning the White House may have dealt a blow to U.K. hopes of quickly signing a free-trade deal with the U.S., a British presence in the Indo-Pacific could help curry favor with the incoming administration. It is difficult to imagine the Royal Navy sailing mast-to-mast with the Americans in the South China Sea, that Britain would be pushed to the back of the line, while Washington negotiates trade agreements with other nations.
With support from Japan, Australia and others, Britain hopes it will soon join the CPTPP, which International Trade Secretary Liz Truss says will put the U.K. “at the center of a network of countries committed to free trade and to the global rules underpinning international commerce.”
This combination of trade agreements and military alliances could be a win-win on two fronts. For the U.K., it would show voters that the government’s “Global Britain” sound bite is more than a just a nationalist slogan. For Asia, the U.K. would represent a substantial new presence among a growing array of nations with the money, firepower and diplomatic skills to convince Beijing to step back from its recent aggressive expansion.