With EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier reportedly driving a hard bargain, Brexit will likely consume Westminster’s attention for some time, leave hard feelings on both sides of the Channel and trigger Britain’s geopolitical drift away from the Continent with no clear political and geographic aim in sight to date. That aim should be Asia with its steep growth, to be followed by its inevitably increasing prestige. As the world’s fifth-largest economy, Britain should position the cake knife before the buffet is empty.
Europe is in relative decline. IMF data shows that Asia’s share of the world economy is now nearly 50 per cent, while Europe (and North America) command about a fifth. In 1990, all three regions held about a quarter of global GDP each. The gap with Europe will only increase as the Indian and Southeast Asian middle classes seek to narrow their considerable lag behind China. The latter is ambitiously pacing ahead with the Belt and Road Initiative, a pan-Eurasian strategic investment program to the tune of £650bn that may align its beneficiaries more closely to Beijing’s aims, much of it will surely be leveraged via the City of London.
Geography dictates that Britain is part of Europe’s relative decline, regardless of EU membership and post-Brexit attachment. All that Brexit does is to present the country with a number of outcomes ranging from taking the lead in Europe (beyond the EU) to descending into utter irrelevance beyond the City of London, having maneuvered itself to the margins of Europe. Unfortunately, the latter is more likely to be the default outcome if successive Governments act without courage or a sense of direction. This applies especially when floating the idea of trade agreements without presenting a credible strategy to achieve them.
Britain should, as Brexit supporters rightfully point out, seek trade in growing markets. Asia would be the region of choice here, but the canvas on which it would leave its mark would not be an empty one. Ties with Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are strong. There is also considerable potential to broaden and strengthen ties with India, to be undertaken thoughtfully, as the scales in this relationship will tip substantially as time advances. Although memories of colonialism are receding as Asian markets look to the future, anti-colonial suspicions have not been fully settled.
With continuing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, across the Straits of Taiwan and the India-China border, as well as in the South China Sea, Asia has also taken center stage of global security from the Middle East. As the only Western party to North Korea nuclear disarmament talks with an embassy in Pyongyang, a long-standing ally of the US, strong diplomatic relations to South Korea and Japan as its island nation mirror-image, the UK is already part of the landscape and needs to enhance its strategic profile beyond military exercises.
Britain has fought to uphold core international norms against Imperial Japan and North Korea and will also be widely expected to align with other fellow democracies in the region, such as South Korea and Japan, whose alliances with the US underpin security and economic order in the Western Pacific. HMS Sutherland’s recent freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea was an important symbol of Britain’s commitment to these norms. At the same time, it should maintain its independence, as it did when it joined the China-inspired Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015.
British Asia policy must beware of losing credibility by remaining aloof as a laissez-faire trade incubator, by making demands that pale in comparison with its geographic reach, or by simply aligning with the US. Within this triangle, it can carve out a niche as a benign broker; it can make demands of the US in return for smoothing the edges in the latter’s challenges with China and mediating where the US has been unable to do so, while adding credibility to regional agreements on issues such as trade, the rule of law, education and the environment. Relying solely on offering itself as a marketplace will, conversely, achieve little but bring the frictions of Asia to the City of London. Australia’s relative demographic insignificance and marginal geographic position, for example, is driving its domestic debate how to reconcile its alliance with the US with the increasing demands from China, its greatest trading partner, after trying to cater to both for the last two decades.
Such a role must, long-term, be underpinned by a continued, credible naval commitment to the region as the most effective and credible way of extending Britain’s reach and footprint. While it should not seek to emulate the ongoing capital ship arms race in Northeast Asia, the Royal Navy can bring its famed 20th-century submariner legacy there, forging relationships based on forward deployment, training, arms exports and naval diplomacy. Bringing its nuclear deterrent to the region could render it a representative of European security interests, underscoring NATO’s stake in the Western Pacific and upholding its commitment to the formal independence of Hong Kong.
Britain is on the geopolitical back foot, no matter the bargain with the EU. Asia, by contrast, is now the center of global politics simply by virtue of its demographic, geographic and economic dimensions. As an island nation dependent on trade, Britain has the potential to position itself as a credible broker and stakeholder in Asia. It should remind itself that maritime power brings influence and credibility to the table, something Britain will lose for good if it confines itself to the Transatlantic world.