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Opinion

Boris Johnson's 'Global Britain' tilts toward Asia

UK foreign policy seeks to adapt to 'Cold War 2.0'

| Europe
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made clear, much to the frustration of Conservative critics, that he wants to expand trade ties with China and maintain Britain as a destination for Chinese investment.   © Reuters

Lionel Barber is former editor of the Financial Times. He is author of "The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times."

More than a decade after U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a foreign policy "pivot" to Asia, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proclaimed a "tilt" to the Indo-Pacific as the way forward for the U.K.

The new eastward orientation is partly a response to the U.K.'s exit from the European Union, which has ruptured relations with its closest neighbors. There are echoes of an earlier age when Britannia ruled the waves, reinforced by the prospective deployment of the supercarrier HMS Elizabeth heading a battle group to patrol the South China Sea.

Post-imperial swagger aside, the Johnson government's defense and security review published this month reveals an important shift in thinking about Britain's place in an interconnected world, characterized by the persistent rivalry between the U.S. as the established superpower, China as the superpower-in-waiting, and Russia as the anti-democratic agent of disruption.

You might call this "Cold War 2.0," a dynamic contest between democracies and authoritarian powers. This world contrasts with the Cold War, characterized by a nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, cloak-and-dagger espionage and proxy wars ranging from Central America to southern Africa and Southeast Asia.

Sir Alex Younger, former chief of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, says today's rival powers will constantly probe and test each other's capabilities, not on the conventional battlefield but in areas such as cyberspace, disinformation and outer space. The rewards will go to the state, or alliance of states, most capable of mobilizing capabilities to confront threats and seize opportunities.

"But we should not dodge the fact that we are in a fierce competition and in some cases a vital contest," said Sir Alex, writing in The Times of London. "Whoever loses will face reduced control over their own future. China understands this well."

Left unsaid is the notion that the post-World War II rules-based order, based around multilateral institutions inspired by U.S. leadership. is fraying badly. Former President Donald Trump's unilateral, transactional foreign policy inflicted serious damage, but the wider challenge is that President Xi Jinping's China does not believe the international system was drawn up with its interests in mind. Chinese leaders in the past may well have held the same view, but they kept their opinion to themselves.

The prospective deployment of a battle group led by the supercarrier HMS Elizabeth to patrol the South China Sea carries echoes of an earlier age when Britannia ruled the waves.   © Reuters

Such diplomatic reticence has long since been abandoned, as shown at the first high-level U.S.-China meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. Responding to the Biden administration's criticism of Beijing's human rights record in Xinjiang, the crackdown on Hong Kong and aggression against Taiwan, a senior Chinese official, Yang Jiechi, declared that the U.S. is no longer speaking "from strength" -- a brazen reference to political and racial division in the U.S.

Faced with this superpower standoff, which both Beijing and Washington believe is likely to endure, the U.K. has to navigate a path that recognizes that the U.S. remains its closest ally while acknowledging the importance of economic ties with China.

Johnson's advisers argue that current alliances, primarily NATO, are necessary but not sufficient. The defense review stresses self-reliance, forging bilateral trade deals abroad, and advanced technological research and innovation at home. Most striking is the proposed increase in the U.K.'s nuclear weapons stockpile from 180 to 260, a decision justified by "the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats," which looks like a warning to any nation contemplating a catastrophic cyberattack.

Asia is a magnet because it is the region where future economic growth lies. The U.K., therefore, intends to take part in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the trans-Pacific trade pact while promoting itself as a "force for good" in the world. This means defending liberal democratic values, exemplified by the offer of residence in Britain extended to several hundred thousand Hong Kongers and the promotion of "good causes" such as tackling climate change.

Johnson is taking a two-pronged approach to China. He has openly criticized China's treatment of the Uighurs while labeling Beijing a systemic competitor intent on setting global rules, acquiring intellectual property through fair means or foul and expanding its dominion in the Pacific. But the prime minister has also made clear, much to the frustration of Conservative critics, that he wants to expand trade ties with China and maintain Britain as a destination for Chinese investment. This feels like having your cake and eating it -- a familiar trait of Johnson's.

Critics have argued that the U.K. could achieve many of the goals set out in its defense review while remaining a member of the EU club. But "Europe" is the word that may not be spoken in official circles, at least for now. The Brexit divorce has left wounds on both sides, rubbed raw by the latest tensions over scarce COVID vaccine supplies. In future, the U.K. will surely relearn the benefit of acting in concert with its closest neighbors, if only to avoid being sandwiched between the competing powers of the U.S. and China.

An agile, self-confident, outward-looking nation, a "soft-power superpower" and a force for good -- these are the stirring qualities of the new "Global Britain." In theory, it sounds appealing. In practice, Global Britain is an idea in search of a policy in a future defined by hard choices and limited resources. Not impossible, but nowhere near a certainty.

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