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Boris Johnson Unveils His Post-Brexit ‘Tilt’ to Asia

But Britain’s new security strategy risks shifting too few resources eastward.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 25, 2019.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 25, 2019. Stefan Rousseau - Pool/Getty Images

The United States had its “pivot” to Asia. Australia has its Pacific “step up.” On Tuesday, Britain placed an Indo-Pacific “tilt” at the heart of a long-delayed national defense and security review, widely viewed as the most significant update of British foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. The tilt sees Prime Minister Boris Johnson talking up Asian economic opportunities—no surprise there—while arguing that a greater British security presence in the region can help to meet China’s strategic challenge. One of the new strategy’s more visible manifestations will be the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, steaming off for a maiden voyage to Asia in a few months’ time.

Tilt critics, of which there are many both in Britain and abroad, say Johnson’s buzzword marks yet another chapter in Britain’s confused search for a post-imperial role—albeit mixed now with a dash of post-Brexit hubris and Johnson’s romantic desire to reestablish the Asian presence that Britain junked in the late 1960s. More serious is the charge that it will leave Britain’s military overstretched, taking resources away from Europe and the growing threat from Russia. Following the United States’ lead and lavishing more money and attention on Asia might sound good. But some critics think that in time, it risks dragging Britain into a military conflict with China. The academic Anatol Lieven recently dubbed that scenario “a potential act of breath-taking—and dangerous—stupidity.”

Such criticism became close to received wisdom in the run-up to the review’s publication. It has been easy enough to portray Britain as strategically adrift after years of internal Brexit debates, not to mention its disappointing early response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the truth is less dramatic. Britain’s tilt will not do much to change the balance of power in Asia. Properly targeted, communicated, and executed, however, Johnson’s plan is actually a sensible response to a world whose economic and geopolitical gravity is moving eastwards—and one that sees the United Kingdom take its place as one of many middle powers in Europe and elsewhere trying to project greater influence there. Indeed, the longer-term risk is not that the tilt is too ambitious, but that it isn’t ambitious enough.

London’s so-called Integrated Review covers all manner of tricky topics, including moves to trim the country’s armed forces and free up spending in areas like drones and cyber warfare. Written in part by John Bew, a professor of history advising Johnson on foreign policy, the document drew headlines by suggesting Britain would increase its stockpile of Trident nuclear warheads, reversing previous commitments in part because of worries about Russia. The document focuses particular attention on areas such as cybersecurity and technological investment, suggesting Britain can become a “science and tech superpower” by the end of this decade.

Even so, the Indo-Pacific tilt’s importance remains clear enough. When asked last year about the review’s top priority, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab talked first about Asia: “That is where I think a lot of the opportunities and the risk management in the next 20 to 30 years will be.” Although it doesn’t say how this will be measured, the strategy also sets a target for Britain to be the Indo-Pacific region’s “European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence in support of mutually-beneficial trade, shared security and values.”

The security side of the tilt is more controversial, given Asia’s fragile balance of power.

The case against the tilt contains two often contradictory strands, dubbing the strategy at once a frivolous exercise in posturing and a potentially dangerous shift of scarce national capabilities. The first case isn’t helped by Johnson’s expansive “global Britain” rhetoric and transparent desire to play a larger international role than Britain’s budgets allow. The second is more serious, namely that the review transfers resources into a region where Britain’s strategic interests are not obvious and may thus do little good. “If Global Britain’s small forces and other security assets … overstretch themselves across the world, the danger is that they may become quite visible but nonetheless strategically irrelevant everywhere,” defense analyst Michael Clarke wrote recently.

To this a third tilt criticism might be added, namely that many in Asia view the idea of European nations poking their noses into the region with skepticism. Here Britain is not alone: France, Germany, and the Netherlands have all produced Asian strategies of late. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in mid-March that Brussels will soon follow suit. The British position is trickier, though. France has more existing recognition as an Asian power, given its collection of island territories in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Other European nations tend to focus on trade and take a softer line on China. London’s rhetoric has suggested larger ambitions, meaning it has more work to do to convince Asian partners that it has a useful role to play.

Set against accusations of a major shift in resources, however, the tilt itself looks rather modest, comprising only three pages of the 100-page document. In economic terms, Johnson has already struck a number of Asian trade deals as part of ongoing attempts to restore some of the market access lost during Brexit. In January, Britain applied to join the mainly Asian Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, where it has a reasonable chance of success. Britain’s trade with Asia is relatively small, especially compared to its links to the EU. But those ties will increase as Asian economies grow, and as international commerce turns towards trade in services and digital goods, which are less affected by long distances and where Britain is highly competitive.

The security side of the tilt is more controversial, given the region’s fragile balance of power. British officials had hinted at plans to establish a “persistent” naval presence in Asia, requiring either new basing arrangements or cycling ships in and out to maintain something akin to a permanent footprint. The review gives no details of this, declaring only that future plans would mean “deploying more of our forces overseas more often and for longer periods of time,” while also talking vaguely of plans to improve existing military facilities in Kenya, Oman, and Singapore. Elsewhere, London wants to become a “dialogue partner” of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as a member of the bloc’s meeting of defense ministers, although its chances of achieving this quickly look slim.

Lurking behind this is the problem of China, where tensions between the tilt’s economic and security strands are clearest. The British Conservative party has turned hawkish, with Beijing in the process of replacing Brussels as the British right’s favorite bogeyman. Johnson, by contrast, has in the past described himself as a “Sinophile.” The review straddles this line awkwardly: It dubs China a “systemic competitor” and the “biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security,” but steers away from anything that smacks of economic decoupling. How long this balance can be held remains in question, given pressure from both the United States and his own right flank. Beijing’s angry response to Britain’s plans is unlikely to abate when Johnson invites Australia, India, and South Korea to attend the forthcoming G-7 summit hosted by Britain—a clear attempt to tie together the world’s leading democracies as a counterweight to China.

For British hawks, the fact that China dislikes the tilt is a big thing to recommend it. Even so, Britain’s commitment of new resources to Asia remains moderate. The United States will likely welcome the arrival of Britain’s carrier strike group in Asia. But in itself this will do little more than mildly augment Washington’s plans in the region. “The U.K. group will have a modest impact on the Indo-Pacific balance” but nonetheless send an “important diplomatic-political signal,” former U.S. deputy undersecretary of the Navy Seth Cropsey wrote recently. Even so, for those who argue that Britain faces more urgent threats in Europe, the act of sending this signal is unlikely to leave a gaping hole that can suddenly be exploited by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hard-headed realists persist in saying Britain has few strategic interests in Asia. But this is at least in part because the region is only in the early stages of becoming the focus of global economic and security decision-making. In future groupings such as an enlarged CPTPP, Asia will play a much bigger role setting economic rules with global implications. The same is true in the diplomatic and security sphere, although this is ever more likely to come via ad-hoc coalitions of willing nations rather than via traditional military alliances, or indeed regional groupings like ASEAN. And any attempt to balance China will work more effectively if the major economies of Asia, North America, and Europe work together.

Johnson’s plan is a fair first stab at playing more of a role in the coming Asian century.

Last week’s summit of Quad leaders was instructive here. On Friday, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States launched plans to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to Southeast Asia, where China’s economic and diplomatic pull have been greatest. Asia will see more of this type of diplomacy in future. The Quad says it plans to work next on issues such as climate change and supply-chain security, where Britain has clear interests. Although it is not a Quad member, it is likely to want to participate in initiatives such as these, perhaps as part of some kind of “Quad plus” formation. The same will be true for other groupings around Asia. As future diplomacy grows more Asia-focused, the onus will be on outside middle powers like Britain, France, and Germany to join these kinds of arrangements and prove they can play a constructive role.

To take part, however, you have to have something to offer. The recent Quad vaccine push only worked because its members were able to commit financing—or in India’s case, manufacturing capacity. And it is here that the test of Britain’s tilt will come: putting aside money or investing in capabilities in areas from military deployments to intelligence sharing to cybersecurity. London faces a similar challenge to explain its tilt to other potential partners, especially in Southeast Asia, where there remains plenty of doubt around London’s seriousness and direction.

Post-Brexit Britain wants to forge closer ties with long-standing friends such as Japan and Australia, as well as strike new partnerships: The review mentions Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, among others. India is a particularly strong focus of the tilt, with Johnson taking a trip to New Delhi later this year and the strategy talking up a potential “transformation” of the British-Indian relationship. Whether London can do all of this without committing far more resources remains unclear.

The tilt’s route to Asian acceptance will have to happen quietly and gradually, and do so mainly by proving it has something useful to offer. Britain will have to get used to mostly playing a supporting role within shifting coalitions of other nations. Here, there are lessons to be learned from Washington’s “pivot” to Asia. At first, it was interpreted as a pivot away from the Middle East, alarming partners in that region. Britain’s strategists seem to have learned this lesson, producing a tilt plan without too many rash actions or lofty ambitions. But the U.S. pivot was then criticized for running out of steam, with actions that fell well short of the strategy’s stated ambitions. The same risk now holds for Britain—if attention or money drifts elsewhere. Johnson’s plan is a fair first stab at playing more of a role in the coming Asian century. But to succeed, Britain will need to keep tilting.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the author of The Billionaire Raj. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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