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Navigating reactions to Britain’s Indo-Pacific engagement

Britain’s renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific is a noticeable foreign policy shift. Indeed, following the direction of the Integrated Review and its 2023 refresh, Britain’s military, economic and diplomatic presence in the region has intensified.

The Royal Navy has been central to this effort. As the Royal Navy extends its reach into the Indo-Pacific, understanding how reactions from nations in the region and the British public are shaping the narrative surrounding this endeavour will become increasingly important. 

This wider public perception has an impact on the support for and legitimacy of enhanced deployments. And it is local leaders and their societies which decide what the greatest priority for their nation is, and ultimately whether enhanced collaboration with Britain and the Royal Navy is desirable.

Why Britain is in the Indo-Pacific

The presence of the Royal Navy in the Indo-Pacific has become ‘a permanent pillar’ of British geostrategy. A key reason for this is because the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with its rapidly modernising navy, has become increasingly assertive – particularly in the maritime domain – and is seeking to reshape the region to better accord with its interests. 

In recent years, the PRC has visibly increased its focus on the maritime. For example, the Belt and Road Initiative has encouraged the PRC to invest heavily in enhancing its naval capabilities and reach, raising concerns among its neighbours about the implications of its assertiveness. Indeed, the recent appointment of Admirals Hu Zhongming and Dong Jun to the highest ranks of the Chinese military by Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), lends further credence to the fact the maritime domain will have an increasingly central role in the PRC’s foreign policy and geostrategy going forward. 

Britain’s naval presence in the Indo-Pacific is often seen through the lens of historical ties and alliances. As a global maritime power, the UK seeks to ensure freedom of navigation, promote stability, and uphold established international norms. Britain’s strengthening of ties in the Indo-Pacific is also an integrated approach which aligns the UK’s economic and military objectives, with strategic focus on both economic presence through building enhanced trade relations, and ensuring the region remains stable and free from coercion. But what has the reaction been, both at home and abroad, to this approach, and why does it matter?

Perceptions of the British presence

Indo-Pacific nations have had mixed responses to Britain’s naval presence. Some states, such as Japan, view British presence as largely a positive development, providing opportunities for collaboration, trade, and enhanced maritime security. Indeed, the UK’s commitment to upholding a free and open international order, such as through supporting freedom of navigation, aligns with the interests of many nations in the region. This increases the appeal of collaborative initiatives, such as joint naval exercises and capacity-building programmes.

Yet, some concerns have been raised, particularly regarding the UK’s economic position and ability to incentivise closer relations with local actors. For example, India is becoming an increasingly important strategic partner for Britain in the region and there has been a concerted effort to deepen relations recently. However, sceptical public opinion in India, in part fuelled by a degree of post-colonial resentment as well as somewhat a general lack of clarity regarding what the British can offer India politically, economically and strategically, is making this effort more difficult. Furthermore, India’s continuation of close relations with Russia since its invasion of Ukraine continues to be at odds with the UK’s approach to Moscow. 

Back home, the British public’s reaction to the increased naval presence in the Indo-Pacific has been similarly multifaceted. Although there is a strong consensus against the PRC’s geostrategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific, as well as many of its domestic policies (such as in Xinjiang) there is still no uniform agreement amongst the public regarding the merits of the UK’s engagement in the region. 

While there is a general sense of pride in the nation’s ability to project power and influence globally, questions about the allocation of resources and priorities have surfaced. Arguably, focussing on distant regions diverts attention and resources from domestic challenges, especially considering the evolving geopolitical landscape in Europe with Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine and shift towards a war economy. Indeed, questions are being asked about whether Britain should continue in its historical role as a global naval power, or whether it should shift to follow a model like that of the Dutch or Danish, fostering a smaller workforce which operates closer to home-shores. 

On the other hand, supporters of the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ highlight the economic opportunities and security benefits which can accrue from a more active role in this region. The South China Sea route is essential for European access to eight of the world’s ten busiest shipping ports; ensuring sea lanes are protected is vital to preserving Britain’s trade economy. Indeed, strengthening economic ties with likeminded nations, securing sea lanes, and participating in multinational efforts to address global challenges resonate with those advocating for a broader, more globally engaged Britain.

The subject of public tolerance and social, moral code is also relevant to this perception argument; fighting a war at sea offers distinct moral benefits compared to land-based armed forces. Firstly, naval warfare often results in fewer civilian casualties and less damage to civilian infrastructure, as naval combat typically takes place far from populated areas. Also, navies historically prioritise protecting trade routes and ensuring freedom of navigation, contributing to the stability of global commerce and the well-being of civilian populations. Indeed, frequently providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in times of crisis, the British and American navies in particular have showcased their valuable role in securing international cooperation and delivering aid to those in need. With society and states today less likely to accept avoidable human casualties, the fact that military action in the maritime domain is not associated with large-scale civilian losses is a somewhat appealing angle to the role of the Royal Navy in the UK’s Indo-Pacific engagement.

In a similar vein, below the threshold of armed conflict, naval power has the added benefit that naval facilities/activities tend to not interfere with people’s daily lives in the way which large air or land deployments do. Indeed, the large-scale protests against the US presence in Okinawa, centred on concerns over noise, crime, and environmental issues due to the significant air base, contrast sharply with the relatively smaller demonstrations at Yokosuka, where the naval base’s impact is perceived as less disruptive and more integrated into the local community.

As Britain’s naval presence in the Indo-Pacific continues to evolve, His Majesty’s Government faces the delicate task of balancing its international objectives with domestic concerns. Clear communication and transparent policy implementation will be crucial in managing public expectations and addressing any potential misgivings. Additionally, active engagement with the dominant political actors in the Indo-Pacific is essential to building trust, understanding regional dynamics, and ensuring a collaborative approach which benefits all parties involved. As the PRC continues to acquire advanced naval capabilities and pursue transactional economically focused relationships, a coherent strategy is more important than ever.

The UK’s Indo-Pacific engagement reflects a strategic recalibration in response to evolving global dynamics. Navigating the reactions of local communities in the region requires an adaptive approach which acknowledges historical complexities while emphasising shared interests and collaboration. However, many in the British public believe that threats closer to home should not be ignored, nor should domestic issues be viewed as a lesser priority when allocating funds for military operations and deployments around the globe. Thus, the success of Britain’s geopolitical shift hinges on a delicate balance between global aspirations and local sensitivities, both at home and abroad.

Gwenna Herd is the Business and Research Manager for the Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre.

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