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Britain continues to prioritise the Indo-Pacific

British policymakers have long debated whether the United Kingdom (UK) should be, first and foremost, a land power maintaining peace on the European continent, or a maritime power with more global ambitions. Of course, it has for many centuries been both. This is no doubt why those drafting the Integrated Review, published in March 2021, opted for the word ‘tilt’ to describe Britain’s renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific.

Yet, while tilting implied a modest re-orientation in the UK’s priorities, the Integrated Review’s goal for the ‘tilt’ was far from modest. His Majesty’s (HM) Government, the report said, will be:

the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific – committed for the long term, with closer and deeper partnerships, bilaterally and multilaterally.

Come 2023 and the Integrate Review Refresh (IRR), HM Government asserted that ‘the UK has delivered on the IR2021 ambition for a tilt’ and promised to make engagement in the Indo-Pacific a ‘permanent pillar of the UK’s international policy.’ Last week, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) cast their verdict in the report ‘Tilting horizons: the Integrated Review and the Indo-Pacific’.

The FAC concluded that ‘it is not yet clear whether the tilt has achieved a permanent rebalancing of UK foreign policy’. In part, this is due to ambiguities around HM Government’s own goals. ‘The European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence’ is a broad vision. Moreover, many of the successes subsequently attributed to the tilt, the report argues, were already in train before the policy’s announcement.

While the IRR has offered some more concrete deliverables with which HM Government’s performance can be checked against in the future, the FAC wants to see more long-term objectives and goals. Moreover, it is seeking assurances that the resources and expertise needed to ensure Britain’s more permanent presence in the region will be made available. The report expresses particular concern that a regional crisis ‘would put considerable strain on the UK’s capacity to articulate and implement responses.’

As much as the FAC report provides a useful critique of HM Government’s progress, it also offers, given the cross-party nature of the body, an indication of thinking across the House of Commons.

The committee is seeking, through this report, to obtain assurances that resources and expertise will be available for Britain to fulfil a meaningful role in this increasingly volatile region.

Firstly, it is worth noting the FAC’s broad support for the ‘tilt’, or ‘prioritisation’ of the Indo-Pacific as they would prefer the policy to be called. This was far from guaranteed. Following the publication of the Integrated Review, concerns were raised that the ‘tilt’ was a misguided detour which ignored the threat of Russian revisionism in Europe. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine could have been used to fuel such criticism. Yet, the FAC rejects this binary view and, by extension, implicitly endorses the view that the prosperity and security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are inextricably linked.

The second aspect to note is the report’s attention to security matters. The Integrated Review identified the Indo-Pacific as an area of both challenges and opportunities. The region, with its many developed and emerging economies, could be viewed primarily as a lucrative substitute for the European Single Market. Indeed, the FAC does identify opportunities to enhance trade. Yet ‘deterrence’ is the report’s watchword. It is in this respect that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan (which the committee visited as part of their inquiry) receive considerable attention.

While the Integrated Review and its Refresh allude to the PRC’s challenge to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, the FAC is more explicit. Their report notes Beijing’s growing assertiveness and potential to ignite regional flashpoints. During the inquiry, FAC members conducted a simulation exercise of a major crisis across the Taiwan Strait, set in 2027, to ascertain ways in which the UK might engage rising tensions in the region and shape their outcome. In their recommendations they urge HM Government to ‘identify meaningful activities…to contribute to the protection of the right of self-determination of the people of Taiwan’ – a call which will no doubt be echoed on the green benches in the years ahead.

The report’s attention to Taiwan, and its assertion that ‘Taiwan is already an independent country’, was welcomed in Taipei and condemned by the Chinese Communist Party. This made for awkward timing as James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, travelled to the PRC in an attempt to influence through engagement. It may well be that the FAC deliberately timed the release to ensure maximum impact. Whatever the case, the committee’s message is clear: the UK should not shy away from the geopolitical challenges posed by Beijing. 

Overall, aside from question marks over the clarity of Britain’s Indo-Pacific goals, the FAC fundamentally agrees with HM Government’s decision to prioritise the region. The committee is seeking, through this report, to obtain assurances that resources and expertise will be available for Britain to fulfil a meaningful role in this increasingly volatile region. If anything, these parliamentarians are demanding more, not less engagement. This consensus bodes well for the permanency of the UK’s presence in the Indo-Pacific.

Gray Sergeant is a Research Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy.

Embedded image credit: UK Government (CC BY 2.0 cropped and overlaid)

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