Is the government’s approach towards Asia creating or hindering a “Global Britain”?
As Britain leaves the European Union and begins a new era, the future of the nation is unclear. The government has promised a global future, typified by increased internationalism, trade and friendship. Yet this is incongruous with the government’s actions. Instead, Britain has increased its military budget, antagonised China by supporting its rivals, highlighting human rights abuses and moved towards a position of hostility.
There is little economic or geopolitical sense in Britain abandoning its ties to Europe, by far its greatest trading partner. However, Brexit means that is vital for Britain to intertwine itself in new markets and strike new deals.
One such opportunity exists with the RCEP, a 16 nation East Asian block encompassing half of the world’s population with many of the fastest growing economies in the world. The RCEP aims to become the largest free trade bloc in the world, dominated by China and it also includes close British allies, such as New Zealand and Australia. In the near future, the RCEP may supplant the European Union in its importance to the global economy.
Yet, instead of embracing this opportunity, Britain has instead aligned itself with India, Japan, Hong Kongagainst China’s interests. This is utterly illogical. Britain admittedly does have close and friendly bilateral relations with China’s neighbours, but this does not mean that Britain should blindly support the positions of such countries as India, which are deeply volatile and complicated.
India refused to participate in the RCEP, despite being a major Asian power, arguing that the RCEP would expose its markets to cheaper Chinese imports. Whilst India suffers a trade deficit with China, this diplomatic spat is likely linked to its dispute with China regarding Kashmir and Pakistan. For Britain, a nation with no border conflicts with China, to align itself with India is nonsensical. Instead, China will simply prevent Britain from benefitting from trade.
Boris Johnson declared that higher defence spending would boost “British influence,” and implied that military power is required to have a global standing. However, Britain is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, holds presidency of the G7, will host COP26and has strong diplomatic relations with several nations. It is also a respected nation in the Commonwealth of Nations. Britain’s considerable diplomatic clout means that it retains enormous global influence without needing to be Europe’s, let alone the world’s, preeminent military power.
There is no evidence that Britain’s shifting China policies improve security and they arguably destabilise its position anyhow. Furthermore, it is shocking that only in 2015, David Cameron and George Osborne enthusiastically spoke about business ties and China remains the third largest import market for the UK, with bilateral trade equalling £7 billion a year.
Whilst there are obvious benefits to China’s rivals from Britain’s changing position, there are no benefits to Britain itself, unless increased isolationism counts. In 2008, the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, announced a “pivot to Asia”, a moment which highlighted a growing anti-Chinese foreign policy from the USA.
Perhaps the British government believe that by aligning their China position with that of the USA and India, they will be rewarded with enormous trade deals. Yet these two partners have proven unreliable.
A more militant foreign policy will worsen China’s perception of the UK and reduce the opportunity for a kind of “peaceful co-existence.” Instead, a costly and irresponsible rivalry may ensue. As Lord Powell, once a private secretary to Thatcher, noted “it is prudent not to provoke unwinnable fights.”
Given China’s status as a world superpower, it would indeed be “prudent” to realise that there is nothing Britain can do alone to influence domestic Chinese policies. Any attempt to do so will surely only cause relations to strain and hostilities to ensue.
Of course, this does not mean that Britain cannot raise issues with the UN and other international agencies. It only means that confrontation and frosty relations are not conducive or useful.
If the government is serious about a vision of a “global” Britain in the 21st century, with reduced European ties but with new and expansive ties to Asia, the Americas and Africa then it must abandon almost imperialistic delusions about military power.
The solution lies more in soft power. A notable example is Japan, which through the Japanese Exchange Teaching Programme, has over 5,700 people teach English from over 57 countries around the world. Such a programme has allowed rural, isolated areas in Japan to gain a global perspective and Japan itself has increased its ties to the rest of the world as a result. This import and export of culture, language, ideas and inspiration is an ingenious method for becoming “global” in the 21st century. It does not require military power whatsoever.
Evidently, the British government should consider programmes that internationalise Britain positively and increase its understanding of different nations around the world to become global. This will, in time, allow Britain’s post-Brexit future to become stable and reduce its European focus. It is undeniable that in the Asian century, Britain must do more to understand this reality and move away from petty confrontation.
For Britain to prosper with reduced European ties, it is imperative for Britain to forge its own alliances and networks with other nations. In the coming decades, Britain’s relationship with rising Asian powers will be of the utmost importance. Through cooperation rather than competition and understanding rather than ignorance, Britain can become truly global.