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Ten myths about the British ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific

The ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific is one of the innovations within the United Kingdom’s (UK) new Integrated Review[↗]. Nevertheless, reading and listening to commentary about it, the concept still seems to be surrounded by a surprising amount of misunderstanding, misconstruction and persistent myths. Let’s map them out and maybe put a few to bed.

1. It is folly for a European Country[↗] to make the Indo-Pacific the main focus of its security policy.

It probably would be, but that is not what the ‘tilt’ sets out to do. The Integrated Review clarifies that the Euro-Atlantic region is still Britain’s priority, and the UK intends to remain the leading contributor to European security. It is, after all, just a ‘tilt’ – designed to stabilise Britain’s balance as the earth’s centre of gravity shifts East. There is a reason it was not called a ‘lurch’ to the Indo-Pacific.  

2. It is a Brexiteer swipe, adding insult to injury when the UK should be repairing relations with its European neighbours[↗]

Several commentators have lamented the invisibility of the European Union (EU) in the Integrated Review. Still, Europe is checked as the UK’s top priority with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), as well as individual European countries like France and Germany, marked out in particular. 

3. The security of Britain’s own region is its number one priority[↗], to which Russia[↗] is the primary threat, so resources should not be wasted on other things. 

Perhaps, but then what kind of threat does Russia present to the UK? It is not the Soviet Union poised to roll tanks across the continent. The danger comes from assassination operations like those against Alexandr Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, hacking, money laundering and political subversion. The foreign and security investments earmarked for the ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific – deploying warships and the Royal Navy’s carrier strike group, military training teams, defence diplomacy, and so on – do not subtract from Britain’s capacity to confront Russia’s actions. 

4. The British ‘tilt’ will make the Americans[↗] unhappy – they want the UK to focus on NATO so they can ‘pivot’ to Asia. 

While an honest argument could be made that this should be the United States’ (US) policy, the overwhelming weight of available evidence points in precisely the opposite direction. The US has signed not one but two trilateral navy agreements with the UK and Japan. US Marine Corps jets will be on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, escorted by the US Navy warship The Sullivans on its voyage to the Indian Ocean and beyond. If the US is discouraging the UK presence in the Indo-Pacific, it looks like the Pentagon did not get the memo.

5. The carrier is too vulnerable[↗]; what if China sinks it?

Sure, but the UK and China are not at war. The carrier strike group is well protected by its own resources, the allies accompanying it, and backed by Trident – the Royal Navy’s nuclear deterrent. It hardly seems plausible that China would calculate the benefits of launching an unprovoked attack on a British warship, within an allied group, sailing in international waters, would outweigh the costs.

So in the spirit of Spring cleaning, rather than re-fighting old battles, why not take a fresh, objective look at the reasons and context that explain Britain’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’?
Philip Shetler-Jones
Dr Philip Shetler-Jones

6. Remember what happened to force Z[↗]?

Yes, in 1941, Japan – which had been Britain’s ally until two decades previously – sank two Royal Navy ships sent to defend Singapore. But provided the UK operates in the region with allies (first Japan, then after a dangerous gap, the US), it has been able to exert influence in the Indo-Pacific, as shown throughout the Cold War, through the Malayan emergency, the Korean war, and the Indonesian confrontation. The balance of risk and reward regarding HMS Queen Elizabeth’s deployment has already been well laid out. After Force Z’s misfortune, technical lessons about the importance of air power were learnt, but the strategic prescription ‘do not venture East of Suez’ is not one of them; if anything, it is ‘do not go alone’. And the UK is far from alone now. 

7. Sending an occasional ship to the Indo-Pacific will not make the UK a leading power in Asia, so why bother?

The ‘tilt’ and deployments like the one planned for HMS Queen Elizabeth are not intended to stand alone, but to contribute to a broad set of multilateral responses to the threat of Chinese aggression and bullying. As a recent RAND report put it[↗]: ‘Even when operational value is not apparent, having allies work together in contested spaces can increase costs on non-allied states.’ It goes on: ‘A united front in maintaining the international order sends a strong message.’ Japan and others in the region (who are in a position to know better than most) have signalled their appreciation for an enhanced British naval presence. 

8. It does not alter the balance of power, and China will not even pay attention.

This goes even further than the previous argument and badly misses the point: the ‘tilt’ contributes to a broad multinational network of free and open countries that share the common objectives of upholding the law at sea and deterring aggression. At least this is less alarmist than the ‘China will sink it’ claim that it flatly contradicts. 

9. The ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific is pure delusion[↗] and backwards-looking nostalgia for the British Empire.

It is the exact opposite. The ‘tilt’ is geared to the outcome of trends that indicate that the Indo-Pacific region will become pre-eminent in almost every strategically relevant area: economy, security, and technology. Some of the historical legacies of past UK involvement in the region might be employed rhetorically to help bring the concept to life or to indicate that the Indo-Pacific is not entirely alien. However, taking this and concluding that the ‘tilt’ is ‘imperial nostalgia’ is confusing a piece of the wrapping with the content itself.  

10. The ‘tilt’ is another illegitimate offspring of Brexit.

Some reactions to Britain’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ feel like an attempt to relitigate the referendum on the UK’s EU membership. For some, ‘Global Britain’ is a slogan forever associated with Boris Johnson and a narrow national outlook. Rather than evaluating it on its merits, the ‘tilt’ is seen as a rebuke to the EU. But if it were indeed a part of the Brexit movement, then why would other European countries like France, the Netherlands and Germany be committing more of their foreign and security resources to Asia within their own expressions of Indo-Pacific policy? The EU High Representative for Foreign Policy has also announced[↗] the EU will also come forward with an Indo-Pacific outlook in April 2021. If the UK had voted to remain in the EU and then ‘tilted’, perhaps some critics would have found it easier to digest.

So in the spirit of Spring cleaning, rather than re-fighting old battles, why not take a fresh, objective look at the reasons and context that explain Britain’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’? Disagreement in good faith is both legitimate and healthy. Pedalling myths and fabricating baseless theories is just the opposite.

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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