A pivotal UK-Australia trade agreement has been signed, and “Global Britain” rhetoric is flowing from 10 Downing Street. However, the United Kingdom is not a natural candidate for assuming a major role in the Asia-Pacific.
Last month, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, announced the conclusion of a UK-Australia trade agreement. While the details remain somewhat patchy, this appears to be the beginning of the next chapter of the UK’s departure from the EU. Having broken free from the backwards-oriented and protectionist bloc, the Brexiteers’ narrative continues with the UK embracing its destiny as “Global Britain.” British entrepreneurs, like the buccaneers of bygone days, should be able to secure their share of the spoils the wider world has to offer, ushering in a new golden age. However, this bold idea to reorient the UK away from Europe may be hindered by geopolitical and economic dimensions.
A legacy of the British Empire is the UK’s prominent role in powerful international institutions such as the UN Security Council, the G7, and the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States), which is remarkable for a country of its size and geographical location. From that position of relative strength, the Johnson government seeks to regain some of the UK’s clout as a global power and guarantor of the international order. London’s announcement to increase the country’s number of nuclear warheads and the recent Black Sea naval incident involving Russian warships off the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea indicate a new level of geopolitical posturing. In March 2021, the government published the extensive but not very detailed policy brief entitled Global Britain in a competitive age, which outlines where the UK’s international reorientation shall begin. While it devotes but a few paragraphs to Europe and the US, an entire section outlines a framework for an “Indo-Pacific tilt.”
This special attention to East Asia and the Pacific region seems mostly related to the UK seeking access to the region’s relatively high economic growth. The UK-Australia trade deal is the first step in that direction, although its long-term contribution to the British GDP will be marginal at best. Its real value is symbolic. First, it is the first deal with a major economy the UK has negotiated “from scratch.” Previous post-Brexit agreements were primarily roll-over deals the UK was part of as an EU member. Second, the agreement may very well serve as a blueprint for further deals, for example with India or the US. And third, it can be regarded as a steppingstone enabling the UK to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade pact among Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam, signed in March 2018. At the same time, London has indicated its willingness to project military power to the region in form of the maiden voyage of its latest aircraft carrier. Together, all of this is designed to signal that Britain has left Europe and re-entered the world stage.
While geopolitical or economic reorientation is not unusual, any British reorientation away from Europe can only ever be incomplete. In international relations, geography and size matter – even in the age of globalisation. Whether Britons like it or not, the UK is situated in Europe, a key member of NATO, and, together with Germany and France, a regional heavyweight within Europe. Outside the European context, however, the UK is just one among several medium-sized powers in an environment that is ultimately dominated by larger ones. In addition, the UK’s focus on East Asian affairs remains limited. Many issues are predominantly regional in nature. This is particularly true for security concerns. Russia’s belligerence is far more concerning for London than Beijing’s assertiveness towards Taiwan or its advances in the South China Sea. These are, at best, distant problems for a country where Brexit-induced domestic and regional issues still dominate the agenda and concerns of the public.
As an economic actor in the Asia-Pacific, the UK is easily dwarfed by the regional heavyweights – China, Japan, and the ASEAN trade bloc. Add to this that the UK remains economically tied to Europe to a great extent. In 2020, 51.6 percent of British exports still went to the EU, and 53 percent of imports came from the Single Market – although these numbers are likely to shrink. The UK’s economy has also taken a large hit as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, its attractiveness for foreign investment has suffered from the UK’s exit from the Single Market. Against that backdrop, British businesses and the public expect from the government a sound plan to reinvigorate the economy. Moves such as sending a British carrier group through the South China Sea might play well with the domestic gallery and wash over the more real struggle to generate economic growth. But such tokenism will neither satisfy British voters in the long run nor strengthen the UK’s trade power in the Asia-Pacific.
Another major point and often overlooked is that, despite Brexit, the UK is and will remain deeply integrated in Europe in physical terms. Leaving the EU was not the end of a relationship but the beginning of a new one. Contemporary Europe can be conceptualised as a system of differentiated integration that consists of several concentric and partly overlapping circles. At its core are several deeply integrated EU states, such as Eurozone. Further afield, but still within the EU, are those countries that enjoy a number of opt-outs from policy areas such as Economic and Monetary Union, such as Denmark and Sweden. This is followed by several circles of states that are not EU members but are tied together through a complex network of institutional relationships. This includes members of the European Economic Area (EEA), such as Iceland and Norway, and various others, such as Switzerland, that are tied to the EU via bilateral and multilateral agreements. Interestingly, however, Switzerland walked away in May from the negotiation table with the EU after more than seven years of attempting a new partnership deal. Still, Brexit has shown that the various relationships underlying these institutional arrangements are dynamic and that movement from an inner to an outer circle is just as possible as the reverse process, closer integration. Even leaving a regional organisation does not imply breaking ties completely but rather a redefinition of relationships and priorities followed by institutional adjustment. Hence, the UK remains very much part of the wider system of European integration and is perhaps a rather unlikely candidate for East Asian or Pacific integration projects.
All this is to say that ‘Global Britain’ as well as the envisioned Indo-Pacific tilt have severe limitations. Geography and changes in geopolitical power distribution make it unlikely that the UK will play a significant role as a security actor in the Asia-Pacific – even in conjunction with its anglophone allies, Australia and New Zealand. It is not inconceivable that the UK succeeds in striking further trade deals and steering some of its trade away from Europe. But wherever this might be, the UK will have to put up with powerful regional actors that will not court British entrepreneurs upon their arrival. Put in a nutshell, the days in which comparably small European states dominate politics and trade in remote regions of the world are over.
Uwe Wunderlich is a Lecturer in International Relations at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities and a member of the Aston Centre for Europe (ACE) at Aston University in Birmingham. He holds degrees from the Otto-von-Guericke-University Madgeburg and the University of East Anglia in Norwich. His research focuses on comparative regionalism, differentiated disintegration, forms of postnational actorness and the impact of crises on regional institution-building. His most recent research has been published in the Journal of Common Market Studies and the Journal of European Integration.
Tobias Hofelich is a PhD Research Fellow and a member of the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence, University of Agder at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway. His research is situated in the field of European integration studies and focuses on the processes related to differentiation in and around the EU. He holds an MA in Euroculture from Georg-August-Universität Göttingen and Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.
Stefan Gänzle is Professor of Political Science, Head of the Department of Political Science and Management and a member of the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence, University of Agder (UiA) in Kristiansand, Norway. Previous affiliations include the German Development Institute in Bonn, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the University of Jena. His research focuses on EU foreign and security policy, differentiated integration, European Territorial Cooperation and comparative regionalism. His most recent research has been published in the International Review of Administrative Science Journal of Common Market Studies, Journal of European Integration, Journal of Modern African Studies, Political Studies Review, Public Administration, and Regional and Federal Studies.
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