The United Kingdom and the Indo- Pacific : Policy Possibilities

Tridip Boruah
March 20, 2021


On January 1st of this year, United Kingdom entered a new era after the end of its transition period on 31st December 2020, ending four decades of its membership with the European Union. Though the UK formally left the European Union on 31st January 2020, it was followed by another 11 months of transition period to chart out a deal for future course of relations between the two. Within these 11 months of transition, countries around the world have witnessed unprecedented havoc created by the Covid-19 pandemic, layers of protectionism scaring the globalist perception and ever increasing threat to security prospects triggered by rising Chinese aspirations in the geopolitical landscape of the Indo- Pacific. China which is the first G20 country to economically rebound from the pandemic while major economies like the US, the UK and Japan had officially recorded recessions and also China’s simultaneous signing of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) gave it a hefty leverage in the Indo Pacific theatre to counter the internationally and domestically deteriorating US. Though the US under the Biden administration is promising to actively engage with its allies and reiterating its commitment to take up its previously held leadership role , it would be in no way by compromising on Donald Trump’s “America First” approach. The emerging hard power and ever transcending soft power prowess of China will definitely give it an edge on the negotiating table in the post pandemic world order. The UK after its withdrawal from the European Union desires to build a “Global Britain,” anchoring its own sets of trans- Atlantic policies with Indo-Pacific at its centripetal. The Quad, the emerging concept of Quad Plus and various multilateral and bilateral engagements concerning geostrategic aspects of the Indo- Pacific are becoming more aggressively and actively centered around Chinese expansionism in the region. European countries such as France , Germany and Netherlands have already devised their respective strategies for the Indo- Pacific. The UK is soon expected to follow suit. The Indo- Pacific emerging as the policy concern for majority of the Western countries is of concern for the ASEAN members, since it considers itself as the locus to any economic and security policy formulations in the region and any such policy formulations by outsiders is expected to go through the prism of ASEAN. Moreover, any aggressive geostrategic front in the region centered around China is considered inimical to regional stability by the ASEAN.

Germany while formulating its policies on the Indo- Pacific strictly adheres to a softer approach. While security aspects assume a milder emphasis, marine pollution, climate change, rule of law, human rights, migration, education, culture, science and technology are dominant in the German Indo Pacific policy. It seeks to involve itself in the external balancing of the Indo- Pacific region thereby blurring itself from exercising any real power.

France devised a comparatively harder approach than Germany. As the resident power in the Indo- Pacific, with territories in both the oceans, it has 1.6 million citizens and numerous businesses in the region. Added to it, over 90% of its Exclusive Economic Zone is located in these oceans, and so it is bound to protect its national interests in the region. Joint action for shared security, stable, multipolar order based on rule of law, the free movement of people and goods, fair and efficient multilateralism forms the backbone of the French Indo- Pacific strategy.

The ASEAN is central in both German and France Indo- Pacific policies. While Germany clearly avoids any confrontational approach to China but France mentions the importance of freedom of navigation, which will definitely raise Chinese concern in the South China Sea.

The UK in due course is also expected to accommodate the ASEAN in its policy discourse. ASEAN, though initially objected to the concept of Indo- Pacific as it saw it as detracting from ASEAN’s ‘centrality’ but gradually it changed its posture and dropped its objection and recently in the June 2020 Summit, it even came up with its own definition of Indo- Pacific: ” A perspective of viewing the Asia- Pacific and Indian Ocean regions not as a contiguous territorial space but as a closely integrated and interconnected region, with ASEAN playing a central and strategic role.” The UK after its exit from the EU would be in urgency to diversify its trade partners. The UK had already finalized a free trade agreement with Vietnam which will replicate the existing EU- Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) and also inked one with Singapore. These FTAs will further boosts the UK’s negotiating position with the ASEAN. Even though the UK- ASEAN trade relation strengthens, it would not be able to neutralize the Chinese economic clout in the region and to counter this effectively ,the UK considers itself open to the Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is in the preparatory stages. So far as the security dimension is concerned, China earlier dismissed any Indo- Pacific concept as ‘ attention grabbing idea….that would dissipate like the ocean foam. ‘ China recently has tried to mold the narrative around the Indo-Pacific content to prevent it from assuming an ‘anti-China’ tone.

The UK while strategizing its Indo- Pacific policies will be cautious not to open any strategically confrontational front with China , but will be of concern to the Chinese since the UK shares intelligence ties with US, New Zealand, Australia which are part of the Five Eye group. Moreover the UK’s deepening relations with the US, Australia, Japan, which are part of the Quad which views that any Indo- Pacific strategy must take Quad as its core which is considered as the Asian version NATO by the China- will influence the UK’s policy.

Whatever the other scopes of a possible Indo- Pacific strategy of the UK, one thing is clear that UK will definitely strategize on the security prospects of the region while maintaining an appeasing status with the ASEAN and a balancing act with the Chinese counterpart. And for the tripartite role of security, appeasement and balancing , India as one of the emerging and prominent power of the region, proponent of the SAGAR doctrine ( Security and Growth for All in the Region ) will be an important stakeholder in the UK’s Indo Pacific strategy.

*** The author is pursuing M.A. in Political Science from Dibrugarh University ***