Britain must cut and flee Europe, says ALEXANDER DOWNER | Express a comment | Comment

The UK is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is one of the largest economies in the world, is a nuclear-weapon state with substantial military force projection capability and possesses power networks fresh in the world that are unmatched by any other country.

Since the 1970s, the UK has, despite these strengths, turned its back on much of the world and focused its diplomacy on Europe. Now is the time to move from a regional power to a significant global power.

To do this, the UK must substantially re-engage with the Indo-Pacific region. It is the region of the world with the best long-term economic prospects, but which is at the root of some of the most serious security tensions in the world.

If the UK re-engages with the region, it can advance its economic interests and do so very successfully and it can also help maintain stability in the region. I’m glad the Center for Brexit Policy has addressed this issue in its new paper Defining Britain’s Role in the World after Brexit, which will be launched on Tuesday.

When it comes to the security of the Indo-Pacific region, its greatest threat is Xi Jinping’s aggressive and arrogant exercise of power by China.

Not only has China ignored the rules-based international system by militarizing and occupying disputed parts of the South China Sea, but it has also ignored the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, issued bloody threats against Taiwan and very substantially violated the human rights of his own people in Xinjiang Province.

China has also sought, through economic coercion, to reduce the countries of the Indo-Pacific region to tributary states.

He imposed sanctions to punish countries from Japan to Australia for not respecting Beijing’s dictates and he threatened to take economic measures to keep their Southeast Asian countries in check.

These threats from China must be countered by forming coalitions of liberal democracies in and beyond the Indo-Pacific region to create a balance of power in the region.

This coalition will inevitably be led by the United States and its closest allies in the region, Japan and Australia. But the UK, as a major country with historical ties to the Indo-Pacific region, can lend substantial support to this coalition.

It can upgrade the five-power defense agreements that have existed since the early 1970s with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. It could base naval assets in the region. It could use its vast intelligence resources to help liberal democratic countries in the region navigate through the difficult diplomacy of a rising China.

More recently, China has demonstrated its diplomatic and security aggression in the Pacific Islands region. The UK has long historical ties to this region. Regional governments as well as Pacific people hold the UK in high esteem.

After all, many Pacific countries were British colonies or dependencies until the 1950s, 60s and 70s. From the 1990s the UK withdrew from the South Pacific, but lately it has started to re-engage.

Substantial re-engagement in the region by assisting Australia and New Zealand in particular will help reduce the ability of the People’s Republic of China to integrate these small island states into its sphere of influence.

To reintegrate the Indo-Pacific region as an important actor, the United Kingdom will have to integrate as a regional diplomatic actor. This means in particular engaging with ASEAN-led regional diplomatic structures. The UK has already become an ASEAN dialogue partner, but it needs to go further by joining the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is the region’s premier diplomatic forum on security issues.

The UK’s return to the region will be facilitated by judicious use of the very large UK foreign aid programme. Helping economic development in the Pacific, South East Asia and Indochina as well as on the Indian subcontinent – which is already a substantial recipient of British aid – will not only contribute to the task of economic development, but also to diplomatic relations with the region.

The UK must also invest heavily in building economic ties with the Indo-Pacific region. Particular attention should be given to liberalizing trade and investment with India and promoting the City of London as the financial partner of choice for Indian businesses.

The UK government has made the right decision to strive to join the CPTPP and should continue to work to try to secure free trade agreements with key Indo-Pacific countries such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

British interests both economically and in terms of the stability of the international system will be greatly enhanced by the UK’s re-engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

  • Alexander Downer is Executive Chairman of the International School for Government at King’s College London and a former Australian Foreign Minister and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. He is a member of the Center for Brexit Policy.

Mary I. Bruner