The UK resurgence East of Suez

Without question the UK withdrawing from the EU will fundamentally impact UK foreign, defence and economic policy. The question is, now that the UK has broken away from the EU how will this policy shift manifest itself? Well it is quickly looking like a pivot to the East, the UK is looking to reassert itself once again ‘East of Suez’.

This cannot wholly be accredited to Brexit, nor should it be interpreted as a scramble to secure new markets post Brexit. It is in fact, a UK policy that started under prime minister David Cameron’s coalition Government and has been continued by PM Theresa May. David Cameron was determined to develop a more cordial relationship with the People’s Republic of China, with the possible hope of the UK benefiting from its economic rise.

This change in policy manifested itself in a high-profile state visit of the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s in 2014 and President Xi Jinping in 2015. These historic visits were reciprocated by both David Cameron and George Osborne. These diplomatic efforts resulted in greater Chinese investment in UK business, property market and energy sector; infamously resulting in the Hinkley point nuclear controversy. What has been seen by this current UK government is a continuation of the policy to strengthen UK-China relations to support trade.

The UK’s policy of strengthening economic ties and investment with China has come into conflict with its current diplomatic and security relationships with Japan, USA and other regional powers. The UK has been trying to play this careful balancing act, but as seen by the USA’s reaction to the UK joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015 reveals the pit falls of this approach. As the growing aspirations of China manifest themselves in the region this will only polarise the diplomatic situation, making it harder for the UK to continue this approach.

Consequently, we are seeing a strengthening of UK security commitments in the region, at least symbolically. This largely started with the opening of HMS Juffair a new Naval Support Facility in Bahrain. This base, the first since the 1950’s, will be the second busiest centre of operations for the Royal Navy after Portsmouth allowing the Royal Navy to re-crew, resupply and undergo repairs in the Gulf ensuring the UK’s presence in the region and acting as a base for British Naval presence in the Asian and Pacific region. Theresa May’s visit to Japan in 2017 was a reaffirming of the UK’s economic and security commitments to the region. A small number of RAF Typhoon fighter jets taking part in its first ever drill with the Japanese air self-defence force in 2016 and now Japan and the UK have agreed to a joint venture in developing a next generation fighter jet; this has been interpreted by Beijing as antagonistic on the part of the UK.

This is further complicated by the UK’s other security commitments in the region. An example of this is the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pledging in Australia in July 2017 that one of the first tasks of the UK’s new Elizabeth class carriers would be to conduct freedom of navigation operations around Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea. Although this is more symbolic given that the carriers won’t be fully operational until 2021 and mostly transporting the US Marine Corps, this does give some indication of the thinking around the UK’s global power projection ‘East of Suez’. The UK’s position is more symbolic than substance but as seen in the past, particularly regarding the Korean peninsula, symbolic commitments can quickly draw countries reluctantly into dangerous situations.

With the UK’s exit from the EU, the importance of Asia for the UK will increase. The question is how committed is the UK to its Asian policy. Recent announcements by the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and planned visits by government ministers to Asia seem indicative that it is indeed dedicated to strengthening the UK’s economic activity in the region. However, as it has been seen, this will return the UK as a growing player in the complicated diplomatic and security situation ‘East of Suez’, this is a reality UK policy makers and business need to face.