Monday, February 26, 2024
Monday, February 26, 2024
Home » The United Kingdom’s Indo-Pacific Engagement

Since its unprecedented departure from the European Union, the United Kingdom has progressively moved to broaden its foreign policy outlook to take account of other critical regions in the world. In 2021, the government produced an integrated review of the country’s future security, defense, and development goals and in 2023 unveiled a “refresh” of that document. Although both stress that the security and prosperity of the Euro-Atlantic theater will remain a core British priority, they each give added weight to the imperative of engaging the Indo-Pacific on account of its central importance to the global economy and the increasingly bellicose behavior of the People’s Republic of China there. 

The United Kingdom is also party to the trilateral AUKUS partnership with Australia and the United States. The pact aims, at least in part, to provide the three countries with advanced deterrence capabilities for pushing back against Chinese assertiveness and thereby ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific — again signifying the government’s desire to deepen its engagement with the region. 

It is not apparent that there would be a decisive shift in the United Kingdom’s current foreign policy trajectory should Labour defeat the Conservatives in the country’s next general election widely expected in 2024. The differences between the two parties are more tonal than substantive, with each acknowledging the core importance of ensuring the United Kingdom’s interests in Europe, but accepting the growing need to expand the country’s influence farther east, particularly in light of a rapidly ascending China.

A Lot in Common

Keir Starmer, the leader of the Opposition, has consistently stressed that if elected to office, he would prioritize reconnecting with Europe to repair the damage done by the governing Conservative Party’s chaotic exit from the European Union. This general thrust dovetails with a central plank of Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy’s Britain Reconnected strategy, namely the need to rebuild strong alliances at home, which he argues have always best served the country’s national security interests. To this end, Labour has emphasized a range of policy initiatives it intends to prioritize. Among the more important are inking a new security pact with the European Union, concluding trade deals with key European allies, renegotiating a better and more robust Brexit deal with Brussels, elevating the United Kingdom’s role in developing the nascent European Political Community, remaining fully committed to the defense of Ukraine, and studiously working to become a reliable and valued member of the NATO alliance.

At first glance, such an outlook would seem to run counter to the current Rishi Sunak administration’s desire to cement a long-term commitment to the Indo-Pacific. However, there are reasons to suggest that a major reversal will not occur. Fundamentally, Labour’s priorities in Europe largely mirror those of the Conservatives, namely backing the Ukrainian government’s pugnacious drive for self-defense against Russian aggression (financially, diplomatically, and materially), supporting collective security through NATO, reinvigorating European relationships, and reifying the security of Britain and the Euro-Atlantic theater as first-order concerns. In this sense, a Starmer government’s emphasis on European defense would be a continuation of, not a departure from, the present Sunak administration’s focus.

Beyond this basic point of commonality, economic and political realities strongly suggest that a future Labour government will have an interest in furthering, rather than reeling back, the United Kingdom’s new commitment to the Indo-Pacific. The region holds considerable importance to London’s developing international defense and strategic policy beyond the Euro-Atlantic theater where vital cross-interests with key allies intersect.

No less critically, the in-waiting Starmer administration clearly recognizes that rebuilding relations with Europe and engaging the Indo-Pacific are not mutually exclusive choices. By contrast, the Labour party’s shadow government views the two policy strands as part of a broader unified effort to secure the United Kingdom at home, while simultaneously extending the country’s influence overseas — particularly in light of a geostrategic “balance sheet” that is increasingly shifting eastward. As Baron Ray Collins, who served as Labour’s general secretary between 2008 and 2011, concluded in a speech before the House of Lords on October 19, 2023: “[T]his debate is not about tilting one way or the other. Maintaining serious, long-term engagement approaches to the Indo-Pacific, through arrangements such as AUKUS, is an essential response to the shifting centre of gravity in world affairs. This will not come at the cost of our security commitments in Europe, nor mean that we can safely ignore our own neighbourhood.”

To elucidate these various considerations, it is perhaps worthwhile to examine how the United Kingdom’s current tilt to engage the Indo-Pacific will likely lay the parameters for a future Labour policy to embrace the region.

The U.K. Tilt to and Engagement with the Indo-Pacific

On March 16, 2021, the Boris Johnson administration published Global Britain in a Competitive Age: TheIntegrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy outlining the government’s core security, defense, and foreign policy goals for the next decade. At the heart of the document is an intent to extend the United Kingdom’s international relations beyond the Euro-Atlantic area by giving more explicit focus to the Indo-Pacific theater. Articulated in the form of a “tilt,” this reorientation aims to cast post-Brexit Britain as a globally oriented power by enmeshing the country in a region that is not only home to more than half the world’s population, but that also generates the lion’s share of the planet’s gross domestic product. 

In line with this objective, the Johnson administration embarked on an intensive foreign policy push to the Indo-Pacific that in the course of just 18 months saw the United Kingdom:

  • Dispatch the Carrier Strike Group 2021 to the region between May and Dec. 2021 (one of the largest such deployments in a decade).
  • Successfully lobby to become the eleventh full dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in August 2021.
  • Pursue final phase negotiations on acceding to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
  • Announce the United Kingdom’s participation in the trilateral AUKUS defense and security pact in September 2021.
  • Co-launch the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative in June 2022.
  • Open a new Singapore-based regional headquarters for British International Investment in September 2022.

Global Britain emphasized a growing emphasis on the need to engage the Indo-Pacific, acknowledging the continued fundamental importance of the Euro-Atlantic theater to the United Kingdom’s core interests, but also recognizing that the weight of the world’s geopolitical and economic power had now decisively shifted east. The document labelled China as a systemic competitor that, while not posing an immediate threat, still presented a very real challenge. 

Developments in Europe during 2022 — notably Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — together with growing tensions in the Indo-Pacific that primarily stemmed from Beijing’s increasingly coercive and belligerent behavior in the Taiwan Strait and the South and East China seas generated pressure for a reassessment of this outlook. Hence on March 13, 2023, the Sunak government produced a revised and updated version of Johnson’s Global BritainThe Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a More Contested and Volatile World. The new document reaffirms that Europe must remain the United Kingdom’s primary security and defense concern on account of Russia precipitating the largest military conflict on the continent since World War II. However, it also stresses that the Indo-Pacific necessarily demands higher elevation in London’s overall national security planning due to the region’s growing international importance politically, economically, and demographically.

The Integrated Review Refresh 2023 does not explicitly talk to the notion of a Global Britain. Rather, it refers to a multilateral Atlantic-Pacific partnership for positioning the United Kingdom’s defense, security, and economic cooperation with the Indo-Pacific, signifying a more long-term commitment to the region. In this sense, what the 2021 policy paper had previously termed as just a tilt, The Integrated Review Refresh 2023transcended into a more permanent pillar of London’s international policy thinking. 

The United Kingdom’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific reflects three broad, interrelated sets of interest: security, economic, and normative. With regard to the first, a highly combustible mix of historical and territorial disputes besets the region, including major flashpoints in the Taiwan Strait and the South and East China seas that could quickly spiral out of control. The Indo-Pacific is also the primary theater in which the geostrategic competition between the United States and China is now playing itself out. In both cases, concern with Beijing’s antagonistic behavior and how it could adversely affect British partners and the international order is a primary driver of London’s desire to give added defense focus to the region.

In the case of the second, the Indo-Pacific includes some of the world’s most dynamic economies that are critical to the United Kingdom’s overall business, financial, and commercial outlook, especially now that the country is no longer party to the European Union’s single market. It is also the geographic lynchpin of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Britain formally acceded to in July 2023, becoming the first European nation to join one of the world’s largest free trade areas. No less importantly, some of the international system’s most crucial sea lines of communication run through the Indo-Pacific, carrying the bulk of the goods, commodities, and energy supplies that fuel the global economy and contribute to London’s own fiscal and commercial prosperity. 

In terms of the third, the United Kingdom sees itself as a force for good that has a vested interest in upholding democratic values and human rights in a region where both are increasingly under threat, as exemplified in places such as Myanmar, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Cambodia. In so doing, the Sunak administration aims to offer an alternative to the model of autocratic governance that China and its regional cohorts are peddling across the Indo-Pacific, namely by articulating a principles-based diplomacy that categorically supports liberal beliefs, freedoms, and attitudes. 

It is here where all three interests intersect. As a maritime trading nation, the United Kingdom has an obvious interest in ensuring guaranteed rights of navigation to and from the Indo-Pacific. However, much of the Chinese government’s assertive behavior threatens that access, particularly Beijing’s efforts to enforce its sovereignty over the 90 percent of the South China Sea it claims as its own. To safeguard the former and offset the latter, Britain aims to expand its physical presence in the region to “uphold international rules and norms that underpin free trade, security and stability.” It is against this backdrop that The Integrated Review Refresh 2023 unambiguously clarifies the Sunak government’s policy for this part of the world, affirming that a central tenet of London’s approach is “to support the vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific shared by many regional partners.”

The Sunak Administrations China Policy

In the context of an ordered and transparent Indo-Pacific, The Integrated Review Refresh 2023 fundamentally reclassifies China from a systemic competitor to an “epoch-defining challenge,” casting the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s actions in the Indo-Pacific as potentially having “greater global consequences than the conflict in Ukraine.” Reflecting this concern, the document includes a section that explicitly lays out the United Kingdom’s policy toward China, basing this on an understanding that in almost all respects, Beijing is pursuing a course that has direct implications not only for the government, but also for “the everyday lives of British people.” In so doing, and in contrast to Global BritainThe Integrated Review Refresh 2023 characterizes the People’s Republic of China as a pacing threat of growing immediate importance. 

The Sunak administration’s China platform is based on two core assumptions: that it is not possible to solve any major global problem without the country’s input, and that Beijing has chosen a new “multilateralist” path that pays limited, if not scant, regard for human rights, universal freedoms, and accepted norms of behavior in the international system. To address this complex, hybrid situation, the United Kingdom aims to strike a balanced policy that on the one hand isolates, condemns, and penalizes bellicose Chinese government behavior, while on the other avoids the wholesale ostracization of the country’s leadership. 

To this end, The Integrated Review Refresh 2023 lays out a multi-pronged strategy that consists of three main tiers: protect against Chinese Communist Party–sourced threats that undermine the United Kingdom’s national security interests; align with core allies to encourage or pressure Beijing into complying with and upholding its international commitments; and directly engage the Chinese government to preserve and create space for open, predictable, and practical relations. This layered approach reflects awareness of the need to resist Beijing’s assertive drive to usurp the international status quo; appreciation of the reality that China is a global player with concomitant power and influence that the United Kingdom cannot ignore; and acknowledgment of the potential economic benefits that would accrue from constructively working with a nation that, by most estimates, will account for around 20 percent of the world’s gross domestic product by 2050. 

AUKUS

Three days before the release of The Integrated Review Refresh 2023, the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States held a summit in San Diego, California, to flesh out and confirm the final details of the AUKUS pact. The timing of the meeting was not coincidental, as it is through this trilateral agreement that the United Kingdom intends to enact its reinvigorated strategy of long-term engagement with the Indo-Pacific. 

AUKUS, itself, consists of parallel lines of effort encapsulated in two interrelated pillars. First is to support the phased development of a fully interoperable conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) for Australia that the United Kingdom will also deploy. Second is to revolutionize the defense sectors of the three partners by promoting the long-term sharing of information in the areas of AI, quantum technologies, cyber security, undersea attack modalities, hypersonic/counter-hypersonic capabilities, and electronic warfare. 

Through these collective ventures, the three AUKUS partners aim to create a self-reinforcing ecosystem of military and scientific linkages that combine and exploit the competitive and comparative advantages of each nation to maximize the potential output of their joint capabilities. In tangible terms, the trilateral agreement has thus far mainly focused on eventuating the first pillar by meeting several key benchmarks. In reverse order from completion to commencement, these include:

  • The production of a highly advanced submarine — to be known as an SSN-AUKUS — that will be based on the United Kingdom’s next-generation design, while incorporating cutting-edge U.S. propulsion technology. Britain and Australia will each build a version of the vessel (BAE Systems won a £3.95 billion contract to develop the Anglo variant in October) and respectively deliver it to their navies by the late 2030s and early 2040s. 
  • Subject to Congressional approval, starting in the early 2030s, the purchase by Australia of three American Virginia class submarines, and potentially up to two more if needed (all with at least 20 years of service life remaining), to resolve Canberra’s existing deficit in advanced undersea attack capabilities.
  • As early as 2027, the establishment of a forward U.S. and U.K. rotational submarine presence at HMAS Sterling near Perth to support the defense of Australian territorial waters and accelerate the human capital, physical infrastructure, and regulatory processes needed for building and supporting a sovereign nuclear-powered submarine capability. To be known as the “submarine rotational force—west,” the formation will consist of one British Astute class and up to four American Virginia class vessels.
  • The immediate codification of arrangements to embed Australian military and civilian personnel with American and British crews to ensure they receive the necessary training for safely using, sustaining, and regulating the SSN-AUKUS platform. Just prior to the summit in San Diego, Sunak announced a £5 billion (roughly $6 billion) increase to the United Kingdom’s defense budget, a major part of which (£3 billion) will likely go to supporting this aspect of the pact. 

If these date-stamped deliverables come to fruition, AUKUS will elevate the industrial capacity of all three of its partners to produce highly capable, fully interoperable nuclear-powered submarines over the long run, potentially adding as many as twelve submarines to the combined inventories of their navies. Though this may be the ultimate goal of the pact, the immediate implicit calculus behind the agreement is that it supplies the West with a firm counterbalance to offset the Chinese government’s increasing naval presence and concerning behavior in the Indo-Pacific. More specifically, by supporting a long-range power projection capability for Australia, both Washington and London would gain a pivotal forward regional maritime footprint from which to rein in and deter a China that Sunak has said is “increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad.”  

Summarizing these benefits at the March 2023 San Diego summit, the three AUKUS leaders issued a joint statement affirming that the submarine plan “elevates submarines for decades to come, expands our individual and collective undersea presence in the Indo-Pacific, and contributes to global security and stability.” From the United Kingdom’s perspective, this both strengthens the government’s ability to push back against Chinese belligerence in the region (thereby reinforcing London’s engagement to this part of the world) and better positions Britain in working with Beijing when necessary (for instance, in dealing with climate change and managing bilateral economic ties). 

Outlook

The Sunak government explicitly recognizes Europe and Russia’s resurgence on the continent as an overriding security concern. That said, the administration has plainly made engagement with the Indo-Pacific an important cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s future foreign policy interests, with AUKUS acting as a defining anchor for the Atlantic-Pacific partnership emphasized in The Integrated Review Refresh 2023. To give added weight to this geostrategic alignment, in December 2022 Britain concluded a major accord with Italy and Japan — the Global Combat Programme — to deliver an operational next-generation stealth fighter jet by 2035, and, as noted, acceded to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership in July 2023. It is unlikely that Sunak’s shift to the Indo-Pacific would substantially change under a Starmer administration, which recent polls have predicted is likely to win a general election widely expected in 2024.

It is certainly doubtful there will be any move to withdraw from the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which offers significant opportunities for boosting trade ties with some of the world’s most vibrant economic powerhouses — including, potentially, China, should the government’s application to join the grouping prove successful. Similarly, there is little reason to believe that the United Kingdom would choose not to foster its role as a full Association of Southeast Asian Nations dialogue partner — including lobbying for inclusion in the bloc’s Regional Forum, which Britain applied to join in June 2023 — as this opens a largely costless avenue for the country to engage Southeast Asia on a wide range of issues.

In the security realm, Labour will have a strong motivation to steadfastly support AUKUS. Australia and the United States are two of the United Kingdom’s closest allies, and far more so than major European Union players such as France and Germany. Unravelling the pact, which Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles has described as “too big to fail,” would damage two critical bilateral relationships, dent London’s esteemed “special relationship” with Washington, diminish the credibility of Britain’s global defense and strategic standing, and possibly have implications for the 77-year-old Five Eyes intelligence agreement that additionally includes Canada and New Zealand. Importantly in a March 2023 interview with Politico, Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey categorically declared Labour’s backing for AUKUS would be “absolute” and, indeed, would extend to all parts of the security and technology alliance, not just those dealing with the construction of nuclear-powered submarines.

The current Opposition also shares many of the present government’s reservations over Beijing’s increasingly belligerent behavior in the Indo-Pacific. Britain Reconnected, for instance, specifically notes that “China’s growth has been matched by greater repression at home and more assertive behavior abroad” — reflecting the same line emphasized by Prime Minister Sunak. Within this context, Lammy has confirmed Labour will carry out, for the first time, a complete audit of the United Kingdom’s relationship with China to ensure that it reflects British concerns and values.  

Should Labour assume power in 2024 (or 2025, when an election has to take place), it is therefore improbable that the new government will move to significantly deviate from the Indo-Pacific engagement course that the United Kingdom has presently embarked on. While ensuring the sanctity of the Euro-Atlantic area will be the defense priority (as it is now with the ruling Conservative administration), economic and political realities mean that the latter theater will necessarily continue to be of significant importance for securing the country’s future interests.

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