The United Kingdom and the Indo-Pacific: “Tilting” or Tottering?

The United Kingdom (UK) has launched a robust tilt towards the Indo-Pacific. To his credit, he executed a series of high-level diplomatic engagements and military deployments in the region. The question, however, is not about London’s desire to engage with the dynamic region, but whether this inclination can be sustained.

During the 2019 Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, Florence Parly, then Minister of the French Armies, came not only with her own entourage, but also with a whole group of aircraft carriers, including the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, with its destroyers, tankers, 20 Rafale fighters and helicopters. Speaking at the event, Ms Parly jokingly hoped the UK would ‘be kind enough not to reciprocate’.

Fast forward a few years and the UK has ‘reciprocated’ with a vengeance. In 2021, it launches a “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific and deploys its Carrier Strike Group (CSG) led by HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region. This year the UK installed a ‘persistent presence’ of two Royal Navy offshore patrol vessels in the Indo-Pacific. This will be followed by a Royal Navy Littoral Response Group in 2023 (comprising an amphibious assault ship and a frigate or destroyer) and a new Type 31 frigate in the late 2020s.

The UK has redoubled its defense ties with the region. At 50e anniversary of the Five Power Defense Agreements (FPDA), the UK and its four partners – Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand – took part in the October 2021 Exercise Bersama Lima Gold exercise. Separately, the AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) deal announced in 2021 tied the UK to the future development of Australian nuclear-powered submarines.

London has also advanced on the diplomatic front. In August 2021, the UK was admitted as an ASEAN Dialogue Partner. The following month, the Minister of Foreign Affairs james shrewdly traveled to Singapore to highlight the UK’s partnership with Singapore and the Indo-Pacific region. Similar messages were delivered by senior officials during their visits to the region, including the former Cabinet Secretary Mr Mark Sedwill.

The UK’s Indo-Pacific ’tilt’ is well documented. The March 2021 landmark guidance document, “Global Britain in the age of competitionhighlighted for the first time the UK’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific. In August 2022, the UK published its five-year plan National Maritime Security Strategya 112-page document focused on maintaining a “free, open and secure” Indo-Pacific – using terminology similar to that seen in the policies of its partners like the United States and Australia, Japan and the United States. India of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

That said, the UK tilt will face some challenges. In Southeast Asia, people with long memories will always regard the UK as a former colonial power. For example, one analyst from Singapore noted that AUKUS is a “white, neo-colonialist” idea that has less regional appeal. While his views may not resonate with all Southeast Asians, London should be aware of the potential pitfalls of this historical baggage when projecting its power in the region. Another indicator of regional perceptions is the 2022 Survey of the State of Southeast Asiawhich ranked the United Kingdom behind the United States, China, ASEAN, the European Union and even Japan in terms of leadership in defending global free trade, the maintenance of an order based on rules and respect for international law.

For London, any regional engagement will remain operational as long as it serves the UK’s national interests and is sustainable. The reverse is also true: a classic example is London’s decision in 1967 “East of Suez” to withdraw all of its troops from its Far East Command (which included Singapore) after the limited finances of post-war period weighed on defense spending. Today, the UK’s ability to fund its Indo-Pacific commitments raises similar concerns, as it logically needs to focus more on NATO and Europe to deal with a belligerent Russia.

The UK’s desire to engage in the region may outweigh its ability to secure its diplomatic and defense commitments.

The UK’s heavy involvement in supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia will have implications for the number of resources London can devote to Asia. In the event of a conflict in Asia, for example over Taiwan or the South China Sea, the jury is still out on whether London would be able to commit significant military resources in addition to the expected diplomatic signals depending on how which such a conflict arises. It is highly unlikely that British defense officials will say “no” to Washington if the latter makes a request, but the form or final form of the UK’s military commitment or deployment remains unknown.

Given the latest news from Downing Street, however, the biggest challenge to the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt lies closer to home. The country is now grappling with multiple challenges, including the skyrocketing cost of living and inflation triggered by the Ukraine crisis. On September 23, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, unveiled the the biggest tax cuts in a century, bringing down the pound sterling and the public debt. The resulting loss of confidence in the pound and the government quickly led to the resignation of Prime Minister Liz Truss on 20 October. Rishi Sunak, who was beaten by Ms Truss in party polls for the top job in July, will become the UK’s next prime minister. Whether Sunak will have the energy to wholeheartedly support London’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific while having several pots in the national spotlight remains to be seen.

The budgetary difficulties facing London will only aggravate the UK’s demand for future “unaffordable” military equipment plans. Ms Truss had pledged to increase defense spending from current levels of 2% of GDP to 2.5% by 2026 and 3% by 2030. The current Chancellor, Mr Jeremy Hunt, has however refused to be fired say whether this promise would be kept. Essentially, London’s commitments to the Indo-Pacific could falter due to these budget constraints.

Ultimately, the question is not about London’s motivation to engage deeper in the Indo-Pacific but whether the tilt might be supported. The UK’s desire to engage in the region may outweigh its ability to secure its diplomatic and defense commitments.


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