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Old allies and new partners

As the Integrated Review rightly stated, we are in a competitive age, where relations with old allies and new partners will need to be adapted in relation to British strategic objectives. Before examining individual allies and partners, it is worth making a few points on the contextual factors that will weigh on the next prime minister’s choices about Britain’s major partners, starting from the strategic situation likely to prevail over the coming five years. 

For starters, the United Kingdom’s (UK) allocation of budgetary and diplomatic resources now has to pay off in a competitive environment, compared to the more benign environment since the 1990s, where the country largely rested on its laurels and concentrated on the global distribution of security and prosperity. Not that fairness has lost importance; rather, as the international order responsible for raising global standards of living now faces active threats, partnerships have to contribute to a re-calibration of the role that Britain plays in dealing with them. In a competitive environment, the scope for ‘nice to have’ outcomes gives way to existential ones. The UK should invest in partners who share this analysis and are willing to share the burden. 

Rather than falling back on partners who merely seek to cling onto interests in a defensive posture, the UK needs allies capable of creating a ‘force multiplier’ effect in achieving shared objectives.

Obsolescence is also a threat to the open international order, so Britain needs partners willing to take a constructive and creative approach in reinvigorating it. Innovation and adaptation will form part of an ‘active defence’ of this order. The UK should present itself as a partner willing to shape this order in ways that accommodate the legitimate and orderly claims of those who have not gained entitlements from it in the past. A vision for Britain as a  cooperative shaper of, not just a selfish ‘taker’ from, the open international order should be presented by the next prime minister.

The next prime minister should also confront ‘declinist thinking’ – the notion that the UK’s best days are behind it – with the fact that the alternative to a Britain that shapes the international order is a UK inhabiting one shaped by others. Among those others, whose influence over Britain would be welcomed? The UK’s partners should identify with this same positive and forward looking spirit. Those who think British ideas have had their day, or that the UK should not concern itself with what happens beyond its immediate geographic region, do not qualify. 

Rather than falling back on partners who merely seek to cling onto interests in a defensive posture, Britain needs allies capable of creating a ‘force multiplier’ effect in achieving shared objectives. It bears mentioning in this context that partnerships are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. For instance, the UK’s post-Brexit relations with the European Union (EU) should be defined according to the benefits of such a partnership, rather than something that exists for its own sake. 

Old partners in focus over the next five years include the United States (US), Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Important new partners for Britain over the next five years include Japan, Poland, and Turkey, as well as South Korea and India. 

The UK-US alliance remains strong in intelligence and defence cooperation, with firm connections at an institutional and personal level between officials. The diplomatic partnership matches the current administration’s approach to structures like the Group of Seven. The polarisation of America’s domestic politics, however, has the potential to re-cast its role as an architect and defender of the open international order in the next five years. The next prime minister should work to deepen understanding of the ‘restrainist’ or ‘isolationist’ elements of American opinion regarding the importance of our alliance, while also being prepared to step up (in tandem with other allies and partners), on the international stage in areas where the US might formerly have taken a lead. 

Japan, Britain’s principal new partner, agrees that the security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are indivisible, and is willing to undertake responsibilities above and beyond its immediate region. 

The UK-Japan ‘quasi alliance’ aligns with British foreign policy priorities of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, participating in Indo-Pacific trade via the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, and the UK as a science and technology superpower, remaining at the forefront of technologies that determine military power and economic productivity in the 21st century. 

Joint development of the ‘Tempest’ fighter aircraft is symbolic of a mutual long-term strategic commitment to preparing for a future where both Britain and Japan remain allied with the US, but less dependent on it. The goal for the next five years should be to institutionalise this ‘quasi alliance’ onto a level of sustainability and normative influence that rises to the level of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the context of the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’. 

Old allies Australia, New Zealand and Canada share qualities that make their partnership of increasing importance for the coming years. In geostrategic terms, they match a growing need for capable and reliable partners for keeping the Indo-Pacific and Arctic areas free and open to navigation and economic activity. As resource providers to Britain and like-minded partners, they mitigate the risk of economic coercion from overdependence on other suppliers like Russia. NATO ally Canada is increasingly engaged in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in countering the North Korea threat. And as AUKUS reminds us, trusted allies with interoperable defence acquisition and information security capacities like Australia are invaluable partners for the UK’s ability to project influence globally.

In the Euro-Atlantic, NATO allies Poland and Turkey offer the greatest potential as British partners on the frontline against Russian aggression. Poland has demonstrated the strength of its will and capacity to stand against Moscow in that context. Turkey, as well as maintaining the largest NATO military in Europe, holds the key to Black Sea security, and has become an increasingly influential power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, not to mention Central Asia. 

Two other promising new partners that deserve attention are India and South Korea. While unlikely to become an active ally, Britain has an interest in promoting India’s capacity to become an economic and military counterweight to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). South Korea, sitting between the PRC and Japan, is at the fulcrum of the global balance of power, and as a technological and industrial powerhouse (e.g. in defence industrial areas as well as semiconductors), its potential as a partner has only begun to be explored. 

The Integrated Review was correct about the need to ‘shape the international order of the future by working with others’. As Global Britain enters a more competitive age and war continues in Europe, the next prime minister faces a daunting task in upholding an international order that suits the UK’s interests. Working with and empowering the right allies and partners has never been so important.

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

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