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Indo-Pacific Strategy of Britain

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The Brexit process, which started with the referendum in 2016, was resolved after the parties signed a trade agreement in December 2020, amid problems such as protests, requests to leave the European Union (EU) and visa disputes. Britain, which left the EU with this process, sought to shift its strategic orientation from Europe to other regions. The Indo-Pacific, also known as the new playground of the international power struggle, has emerged as the region where Britain will focus its strategic weight in the coming period.

The declining prominence of Europe in global politics in terms of economy, politics, and security is the primary reason why England, which has a global empire background, is gravitating towards different regions such as Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific area is home to the world’s most populated and economically strong countries, in contrast to Europe’s slow economic development and aging population. The “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” narrative, initiated by Japan and frequently emphasized by the United States of America (USA), is the basis of Britain’s approach to the Indo-Pacific geography.

Britain, while defining itself as a European country with global interests, in the official document titled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”[1] published in 2021 and signaling a return to the realpolitik struggle, also frequently emphasized the importance of the Indo-Pacific region. In this context, it would not be wrong to say that the Indo-Pacific orientation of London will be realized in security, economic and diplomatic fields.

After the Brexit process, the UK’s relations with Europe deteriorated, and perhaps the most problematic area is the economy. Adding the damage caused by the Covid-19 epidemic to the economic problems, the UK has made it a priority to develop its commercial relations with the state in the Indo-Pacific. Indo-Pacific countries[2], which currently account for 17% of the UK’s global trade and 10% of foreign direct investment, offer significant opportunities with their developing economies.

Considering the population of the countries involved in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is seen as the biggest trade opportunity for the UK, it is known that CPTPP market is estimated to have over 500 million people. The UK, which made an official application to join the CPTPP in 2021, aims to allow British products to enter the Asian market more easily without customs duty. In particular, Asia, where the middle class is gradually increasing, is considered a very favorable market in terms of the UK’s service sector and technological products.

The United Kingdom has also recently announced the start of a significant free trade deal with India which is not part of the CPTPP. According to analysts, the deal, which began on January 13, 2022, will double the UK’s exports to India and raise total trade to $38 billion by 2035.[3] The London administration, which wants to improve its economic relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has taken important steps in this direction. Liz Truss, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, visited ASEAN on 15 November 2021 to strengthen trade relations and sign a free trade agreement. In addition to the trade agreements currently in force with the UK, Singapore and Vietnam, it also wants to make agreements with other ASEAN countries.[4] This kind of economic relations will be on the agenda of England in the coming periods. In addition to its economic efforts, the UK has increased its security and military actions in the region in recent years.

In the current situation, England, which has multinational agreements such as Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) and Five Eyes, and bilateral defense agreements with the countries of the region, has once again reaffirmed its return from Europe to the Indo-Pacific geography with the latest AUKUS Agreement.[5] Within the context of the Anglo-Saxon alliance, the agreement, which primarily comprises the building of nuclear submarines, will strengthen Britain’s engagement in the region in areas such as technology, industrial bases, and supply chains.

The most substantial step taken by Britain in terms of defense and causing tension with China is its military activities in the South China Sea. As it is known, Beijing considers the South China Sea as its sovereignty area within the strategy of the “Nine Dash Line”. Any military activity carried out in this territory is also seen as a violation of sovereign rights by Beijing. Despite this, in January 2019, the UK and the US conducted their first joint military exercise in the South China Sea.[6]

Britain’s most visible effort to enhance its military footprint is the deployment of its biggest naval fleet to the Pacific Ocean. The statement “The UK is not stepping back but sailing forth to play an active role in shaping the international system of the 21st century. When our Carrier Strike Group (CSG) sets sail next month, it will be flying the flag for Global Britain — projecting our influence, signaling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow[7] made by UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace pointedly this naval fleet shows that London sees itself as a founding-major actor rather than a mediator actor. In this context, the UK Royal Navy (RN) announced on 7 September that two of its River-class Batch II offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) – HMS Spey and HMS Tamar – have begun a five-year-long deployment to the Indo-Pacific to bolster the United Kingdom’s presence in the region.[8]

Finally, Britain also has been increasing the pace of its diplomatic, military, and economic activities in the region. The most significant step taken in this direction is the ASEAN-UK relations. Dominic Raab, The Former British Foreign Secretary announced that they were a “Dialogue Partner” with ASEAN as a result of meeting with ASEAN Foreign Ministers.[9] With this statement, it is reasonable to assume that the UK will strengthen its ties with ten member nations in the region in areas such as trade, investment, climate change, the environment, science and technology, and education and thus replace its lost partners in Europe with states in Asia. After Raab, Liz Truss regarded trips to the region as a priority of Britain’s new foreign policy. In this backdrop, her one-week tour to Southeast Asia was a great step in strengthening commercial and political ties in the area.[10]

All these steps taken after Brexit are the imperial reflex of England against the international order that is supposed to be shaped between the USA and China. It should be noted that the ability to command the oceans was originally what once made England the “empire on which the sun never sets.” Undoubtedly, England does not have such power in the current situation.  However, it is also seen that England will play an important role and return to the seas in the Indo-Pacific, which was once the scene of the discoveries of the British captain and explorer Captain James Cook and called the “British Lake”. In this context, the appointment of the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin to the Chief of the Defence Staff. should be noted as a critical message.

[1] “Global Britain in a Competitive Age The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, Cabinet Office, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/975077/Global_Britain_in_a_Competitive_Age-_the_Integrated_Review_of_Security__Defence__Development_and_Foreign_Policy.pdf, (Date of Accession: 18.01.2022).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “UK and India Launch Talks in New Delhi on Post-Brexit Trade Deal”, Euro News, https://www.euronews.com/2022/01/13/uk-and-india-launch-talks-in-new-delhi-on-post-brexit-trade-deal, (Date of Accession: 19.01.2022).

[4] “The UK Foreign Minister Visits ASEAN Looking for Trade Deals-But is Britain All at Sea Over the CPTPP?”, ASEAN Brifing, https://www.aseanbriefing.com/news/the-uk-foreign-minister-visits-asean-looking-for-trade-deals/, (Date of Accession: 19.01.2022).

[5] “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS”, White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/15/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus/, (Date of Accession: 19.01.2022).

[6] “U.S., Britain Conduct First Joint Drills in Contested South China Sea”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-britain-southchinasea-idUSKCN1PA0PV, (Date of Accession: 19.01.2022).

[7] Brad Lendon, “Britain is Sending a Huge Naval Force Through Some Of The Most Tense Waters in Asia”, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/04/26/europe/uk-aircraft-carrier-strike-group-asia-intl-hnk-scli-ml/index.html, (Date of Accession: 19.01.2022).

[8] Gabriel Dominguez, “Two Royal Navy OPVs Begin Five-Year Deployment to Indo-Pacific Region”, Janes, https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/two-royal-navy-opvs-begin-five-year-deployment-to-indo-pacific-region, (Date of Accession: 19.01.2022).

[9] “UK Becomes Dialogue Partner of The Association of Southeast Asian Nations”, Gov.Uk, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-becomes-dialogue-partner-of-the-association-of-southeast-asian-nations, (Date of Accession: 19.01.2022).

[10] “Foreign Secretary Beginning Week-long Visit to Southeast Asia Today”, Politico, https://www.politics.co.uk/news-in-brief/foreign-secretary-beginning-week-long-visit-to-southeast-asia-today/#:~:text=Foreign%20Secretary%2C%20Liz%20Truss%20will,also%20visit%20Thailand%20and%20Indonesia.&text=The%20visit%20follows%20the%20agreement,Asian%20Nations%E2%80%9D%20(ASEAN)., (Date of Accession: 19.01.2022).

Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU
Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU
Mustafa Cem Koyuncu, Karabük Üniversitesinde Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünde Master öğrencisi olup Hint-Pasifik Bölgesi, ABD-Çin Rekabeti, uluslararası güvenlik, jeopolitik ve stratejik araştırmalar alanları üzerinde çalışmalar yapmaktadır. Karabük Üniversitesi’nde eğitimine başlamadan önce, Boğaziçi Üniversitesinde Lisans eğitimini tamamlamıştır. Özel sektörde yöneticilik tecrübesi kazanmasının ardından Koyuncu, kariyerine ANKASAM’da devam etmektedir. Koyuncu, ileri seviyede İngilizce bilmektedir.