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POLITICAL PIVOT

Post-Brexit Britain has its sights on Asia—if it can get over Europe first

A man waves a British flag to celebrate Brexit.
REUTERS/HENRY NICHOLLS/FILE PHOTO
In the aftermath of Brexit, where will “Global Britain” turn for new economic and political opportunities?
  • Annabelle Timsit
By Annabelle Timsit

Geopolitics reporter

Barack Obama billed himself as the “the first Pacific president,” and between 2008 and 2016 pursued a vision for the US to take a leading role in Asia. In 2018, France called for a “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis.” Last year, Germany launched its own Indo-Pacific strategy.

These moves are a tacit recognition of just how much the center of the world’s economy and political system has shifted eastward in recent years. Now, the UK is joining the fray, with ambitious plans for a post-Brexit “Global Britain” that has stronger ties to the Indo-Pacific, where many of its former colonies reside.

On Monday (Jan. 11), the House of Commons met to debate the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy strategy as an independent nation outside of the EU, for the first time since 1973. The debate reflected the priorities of lawmakers and their government. As such, it provided an interesting window into the countries and regions the UK will likely focus on in the next decade as it seeks to fill an EU-sized hole in trade and political opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, the place lawmakers mentioned most often by far was their own union of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England—470 times in the course of a three-and-a-half-hour debate, to be exact. (That number includes mentions of the “United Kingdom,” “UK,” “Britain,” “British,” and the devolved administrations.) But the region in second place is surprising. In a debate about what the UK should do now that it’s not in the EU anymore, lawmakers mentioned the EU and its member states 75 times.

When it comes to individual countries, eight of the 10 most mentioned are in the Indo-Pacific. (While there’s no universally-agreed-upon definition of that region, for the purposes of this article it includes the US.)

That’s consistent with the UK’s expanding role in the region to date. The Royal Navy has become more active in the South China Sea over the last two years. This year it will send its aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, on a freedom-of-navigation mission there with American and Japanese forces.

In responding to China’s civil rights crackdown in Hong Kong, the UK has repeatedly chosen to issue joint statements with Indo-Pacific powers, as opposed to doing so with the EU. And, as chair of the G7 Summit this year, the UK invited India, Australia, and South Korea to join. Meanwhile, prime minister Boris Johnson’s first major bilateral visit was meant to take him to India before it was canceled due to Covid-19.

This week’s debate is well-timed for those who seek political change; the government is in the midst of a large-scale review of its security, defense, and international development policies that will touch on the question of the UK’s sphere of influence post-Brexit.

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