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Decoding the UK’s Tilt to the Indo-Pacific and What It Means for India

File photo of Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Image: AP)

File photo of Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Image: AP)

Oddly, the UK's Integrated Review does not mention the Quad security grouping at all.

The release of the UK’s Integrated Review (IR) last week and the Defence Command Paper this week have sparked a small but vigorous debate as to the direction of Britain’s global posture with many speculating on the meaning of its “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific. After all, its founding assumption was “[The UK] must also do more to adapt to major changes in the world around us, including the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region”. This growing enthusiasm for engaging in the region certainly offers a great opportunity for Delhi to partner with London.

Despite these exciting prospects, some critics have noted the word “tilt” contrasts unfavorably with the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to Asia from 2011. A tilt is not a rebalance after all, indicating less than full commitment by the UK to the region. But then it was never quite realistic to expect an island-nation in the Euro-Atlantic to throw its full diplomatic, economic, and military resources into a part of the world many thousands miles away. Having said that, experts with a close knowledge of the IR say that it is best understood when considering the last iteration of a security review, the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, and point to the significant shift in London’s China strategy.

The 2015 review noted the importance of the Asia Pacific, but it was buried in a section called “Allies, Partners, and Global Engagement” and only came after sections on Europe, the Commonwealth, the Five Eyes, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as sub-Saharan Africa. It noted the region’s “significant economic opportunities” as well as its “considerable influence on the future integrity and credibility of the rules-based international order”—a binary at the very heart of Britain’s approach to the region. If one thinks back to 2015, London was attempting to strengthen Chinese inflows of investment, while also trying to shore up the rules-based international system (RBIS). The contradiction within that policy has been a mainstay of many countries’ approach towards China. But the difference between the 2015 review and last week’s IR is striking. Just one year after Beijing planned a sausage-slicing take-over of the South China Sea trade route in 2014, the Cameron government was, nevertheless, laying out the red carpet for China’s leader Xi Jinping, giving him the honours that accorded with a full state visit—a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, and the declaration of a UK-China “Golden Era”.

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The IR does echo the 2015 paper’s economic-security binary, and asserts the region’s importance “to our economy and security; it is a focal point for the negotiation for international rules and norms, and will become more important to UK prosperity.” Given the UK’s historic identity—the creator of a global trade-based, maritime empire—it should come as no surprise that as London leaves the stifling embrace of a Berlin-led European Union, it should look to the traditional geographic and geo-economic drivers and national interests. The difference being, of course, that the UK comes as a fully mature liberal democracy with a history and political culture at odds with its imperial past. Thus, while the geopolitical variables are the same—maritime-based trade in an increasingly contested order—the UK’s response will be different, charged with democratic liberalism rather than commercial imperialism.

However, where the IR begins to seriously differ from its predecessor is in the handling of that economic driver. Previously, under the leadership of Cameron’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, London seemed to treat China and Asia as one and the same. In defending Britain’s decision to join the Beijing-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), he stated it would be “good for a world where we draw countries together in cooperation, good for Asia because it is going to help bring investment to this continent.” Indeed, the fantasy of tapping at will into Beijing’s large currency reserves acted as a sort of charm inside Whitehall, deployed by the Treasury to beguile political masters against those in the Admiralty and Foreign and Commonwealth Office who held misgivings. It is difficult not to see last week’s Integrated Review as a victory for those constituents against the Golden Era adherents, buoyed by China’s own actions, such as in 2017 when it reneged on the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong—a treaty document registered with the United Nations—and in 2018 when it began an imperial project of cleansing Xinjiang of its Uyghur Muslim population.

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The Integrated Review also deepens the UK’s commitment to regional states like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore. Oddly, it does not mention the Quad security grouping at all within the IR’s 114 pages, but its non-appearance could be down to diplomatic sensitivities. The UK has indicated interest in the Quad but will not wish to be seen to be muscling in. Either way, it is a surprising omission. In speaking of the UK–India relationship, the paper tracks the broader trend inside the West of treating India as a rising power in its own right, courting its participation and leadership in the Commonwealth and looking to it for increasing UK–Asia trade flows. Given the post-COVID trade-flow vulnerabilities and Beijing’s increasing use of economic coercive statecraft, this desire to diversify away from China is a significant opportunity for India, ASEAN, and others. Notably, this trade diversification strategy has already seen the UK negotiate trade deals with Japan, Australia, and has opened negotiations with the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade group. Naturally, this will include defence trade, something that will be nicely paired with the HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group’s tour through the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific. When it comes to helping regional states build naval capacity—particularly those based around advanced maritime operations—the Royal Navy and UK Defence Inc. intend to be an agile and willing partner.

The Integrated Review is not a perfect document, but it offers a broad strategic direction for the UK and a signal of intent to India and other Indo-Pacific powers. James Rogers, founding director of the Council of Geostrategy, asserts that the emphasis on the Indo-Pacific is “a heavy one” and that “India has been identified as a pivotal country, with the likelihood of growing ties between London and New Delhi in the years ahead”. As we consider an uncertain future in the waning months of the pandemic, it will be, indeed, interesting to see whether or not that prophecy is realised.

This article was first published on ORF.

Disclaimer:Dr John Hemmings is Associate Professor, Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawaii, USA. Views expressed are personal.
first published:March 29, 2021, 12:24 IST