When the U.K. finally achieved Brexit on 1 January 2021, it had the satisfaction of having a deal with the European Union. It is now re-positioning itself and has quickly moved into the idea of Global Britain  by reaching for partnerships into diverse regions. The earliest, was perhaps India which invited Prime Minister Boris Johnson to be the chief guest at the Republic Day on 26 January. However, this was not to be due to the Covid pandemic, particularly its incidence in the U.K.
Even as its former jewel in the crown is often evoked by being a first partner for trade, digital, strategic, and defence engagement, in reality, Global Britain is making a quick pivot to broader Asia and is following it up rapidly. Like other European powers, the U.K. has its eyes on trade and investment linkages in Asia. On 1 February, the U.K. applied for membership of the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Trade Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It seeks closer trade relations with countries of the Indo-Pacific. It is willing to engage robustly on a strategic embrace of the concept. Most of all, it is prying open the arms of ASEAN to engage it as a full dialogue partner.
The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign Policy and Development  underway in Whitehall hopes to set the trend for such initiatives but the U.K. is reaching out to Asia without waiting for its completion. The ASEAN countries attract attention particularly Singapore and Vietnam. Other countries high on the U.K.’s sights are Japan, Korea, and Australia.
Bilaterally, the U.K. has engaged Japan Singapore, and Vietnam whilst also working with Australia and New Zealand for new trade engagements. The biggest ambition is the CPTPP which was ignored by the Trump administration. Though, technically not a Pacific power, the U.K. appears welcome by the TPP membership since it is not seen in restrictive geographical terms. This is indicative in the speed with which the Japanese Chair of the TPP and the New Zealand depository welcomed the U.K. application.
The U.K. wants to lead an alliance of democracies beyond the Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism. Boris Johnson aims to expand the G7 to a D10 by inviting India, South Korea, and Australia to the G7 Cornwall summit in June – another part of the U.K.’s pivot to the East. Former U.S. President Trump had made a similar call in 2020 but wanted to include Russia – which the other G6 countries were resistant of. This time too, the invitation to the D10 has encountered murmuring among other G6 members.
Why is Britain in such a hurry? In strategic terms, its response to the Indo-Pacific has been slow to evolve. Unlike the Germans or the Dutch who have already articulated their Indo-Pacific policies even without a physical presence in the region, the U.K. has maintained it’s presence there through Diego Garcia and long-standing relationships with countries such as Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. Like France and Germany, the U.K. intends to enhance its naval imprint in the Indo-Pacific. Although, it does not have an enunciated policy for this so far. The U.K., France, and Germany approached the UN Secretary-General with a demarche last year on their position on the South China Sea and the need to abide by the UNCLOS. Strategically, the door may be open for the U.K. to align with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue due to China’s aggressive intent.
Among several European countries that have approached ASEAN for an institutionalized partnership, the U.K. seems to have jumped the queue. So far it had been a part of the dialogue partnership between the European Union and ASEAN. This is one of the 10 such partnerships that ASEAN has.. Other countries have had to seek a sectoral partnership like Norway and Switzerland or a new concept of development partner which Germany accepted. ASEAN maintained a moratorium on new dialogue partnerships since 1997 due to them crowding the agenda around ASEAN summits each November. The U.K. has had a separate Ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta since January 2020. It has persuaded ASEAN that since it was part of a dialogue partnership through the EU, following Brexit, it deserves its separate dialogue partnership. The ASEAN seems willing but is it time to loosen the moratorium and allow others to bid for similar engagements as well?
The U.K. has offered the Economic Working Group of the East Asia Summit a Boston Consulting Group report on how ASEAN can benefit from value chains.
It offers to ASEAN another development and strategic partner, the TPP a chance to expand, the Indo-Pacific outlook another niche, and an added edge to the Quad. Japan appears comfortable with the greater role that the U.K. seeks to play. The U.K.-Japan 2+2 dialogue on 3 February brought the focus on these issues including collaborations on cyber and defence.
This is a matter of interest to India which has been pursuing strategic and resilient value chains with new partnerships in Japan, Australia, and France, hoping to link up through ASEAN. While India is absent from RCEP, the entry of the U.K. in a big way into the region and its acceptance as a TPP member could bring challenges as well as opportunities for India. Digital, public health, cyber security, and climate are additional areas where India and the U.K. can collaborate along with other Asian countries.
Gurjit Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to Germany. He is currently the Chair of the CII Task Force on the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.
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