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Brexit Britain's troubled quest to 'Asianize' the Commonwealth

London is struggling to find partners, even in India, where it has focused diplomatic efforts

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British Prime Minister Theresa May, right, and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi in November 2016   © Reuters

As the U.K. reaches a critical phase in its negotiations to leave the European Union, Theresa May's government is engaged in a desperate hunt for alternative partners.

London has seized on the Commonwealth of Nations, formed out of the British Empire, as one way of strengthening its political and economic alliances outside the EU.

On the face of it, the 52-member organization, comprising a third of the globe's population and including India, the most populous member, is a logical choice. These states have historic links, a widespread use of English, and elements of a common institutional heritage.

But the truth is that London will struggle to refashion a somewhat anachronistic institution that now focuses on culture and aid. In the four decades of Britain's EU membership, most Commonwealth countries have reduced their economic ties with the U.K. and forged links closer to home, including in Asia. Members today are tied together by little more than a common experience of being colonized by Britain.

A century ago, when the sun never set on its empire, Britain projected itself as a global force for good, using trade, the rule of law and infrastructure construction as evidence of its civilizing mission.

As the empire began to disintegrate, Britain held on to these notions and founded the Commonwealth, with a focus on preferential trade ties between Britain and other member countries.

But those links ruptured when the U.K. turned its focus toward Europe and in 1973 joined the European Economic Community, which later became the EU.

Ruptured links

Many in the Commonwealth felt betrayed and mutual trade plummeted, not least with Asia-Pacific states. Australian butter exports to Britain dropped by more than 90% as Danish butter took over shop shelves.

Now rebuilding non-EU trade is a top British priority. Faced with acrimonious Brexit negotiations and lacking the expected lifeline from Donald Trump's U.S., the U.K. desperately needs to fill the vacuum when the EU split takes place in 2019. The question is whether a Commonwealth revival could possibly gain momentum, particularly with London hosting the next Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in April 2018.

"Free trade deals and the prospect of increased trade with our Commonwealth friends and partners will, indeed, be at the heart of the summit next year," U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, told the House of Commons in November. "We believe that this can be a win-win. With 2.4 billion people and some of the fastest growing economies in the world, the 52 countries of the Commonwealth represent a superb opportunity for this country to do free trade deals."

The first hurdle to Johnson's vision co-opting India -- by far the biggest Commonwealth member. Until now, Britain's attempts to woo New Delhi into a post-Brexit trade agreement -- or much else for that matter -- have not got off to a good start.

A year ago, Prime Minister May made India her first overseas visit outside Europe. She left with little, except New Delhi's demands for more relaxed visa arrangements - something that is almost impossible for her to grant, given how Brexit has been propelled by immigration fears.

India has in any case shown some disdain for recent biennial Commonwealth summits. Prime Minister Nahrendra Modi and his predecessor Manmohan Singh failed to turn up to the last three.

Modi has not yet confirmed whether he will come in April. In November Prince Charles visited India in a 10-day tour of Asian Commonwealth countries. He told Modi that, as the world's largest democracy, India's role "could not be more crucial nor her contribution to the Commonwealth more essential."

Indian officials say privately that, if handled skillfully, Britain's Brexit vacuum could be useful. It could help leverage more favorable trading arrangements. It could also give India a new global platform to counter China. To achieve this, the Commonwealth would have to be diversified, moving key roles out of Britain to hubs such as Nigeria, Australia, Canada and, of course, India.

One of Modi's campaign donors, businessman Manoj Ladwa, is a vocal advocate arguing that the Commonwealth with a combined 14% share of global gross domestic product, could become a vehicle to drive "large parts of the world into the 21st century."

Raja Mohan, director of the Carnegie Institute in New Delhi says: "The question today, is no longer about whether India and Britain should resurrect the Commonwealth, but how? The Commonwealth can serve the interests of both countries."

Both New Delhi and the Commonwealth Secretariat in London have officially remained non-committal on Britain's push, saying it is business as usual and there have been no formal discussions.

Johnson's economic aspirations are partly reflected in a Commonwealth study last year which estimated that an Anglo-Indian trade agreement would increase bilateral trade by 25% with Britain's exports to India rising by 50%, from $5.2 billion to $7.8 billion, while India's to Britain would go up by 12% from the current $9.7 billion. 

It referred to a 19% "Commonwealth advantage" in trading costs between member states because of long-established relations.

Earlier this year, Britain and the Commonwealth Secretariat showed how seriously they took revival plans by filling top posts with veteran British foreign policy experts. Tim Hitchens, a former U.K. ambassador to Japan, moved into the Cabinet Office to oversee Commonwealth issues. In January, Sir Simon Gass, a former political director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, temporarily took over as the Commonwealth's chief operating officer before he handed over to Nigel Morland in April whose background is in business.

History of abuses

Moves are now afoot to establish a Commonwealth Trade Finance Facility aimed at helping smaller member states. India's Bank of Baroda is the main partner, alongside Standard Chartered, the U.K.-based Asia-focused bank.

These moves come amid some pressure on the Commonwealth Secretariat itself. The body last year came under fire for flawed management. Britain's development agency, DFiD, threatened to withdraw funding, saying that the Commonwealth was in need of "urgent organizational reform" and required "greater strategic focus."

But, even if the mismanagement is fixed and Modi does, as expected, attend the April summit, the path ahead for a reformed Commonwealth remains hazardous.

Modi must decide whether Britain's Commonwealth revival plans could be an appropriate vehicle to bolster India's global reputation and whether the Commonwealth would help or hinder New Delhi's attempts to counter Beijing's growing economic and military squeeze. Moreover, an enhanced Indian role would be challenged elsewhere, not least in Pakistan.

More fundamentally, talk of a Commonwealth revival coincides with a revision of British Empire history. Many schools and universities no longer focus on civilization and trade, but on massacres and human rights abuses. As more becomes known, attempts to paint a modern face on the Commonwealth risk becoming stained with bad history.

The Commonwealth is a solid organization for what it does. To leave it there may be wiser than trying to fit a new engine into an institution derived from bygone memories of a world that no longer exists.

Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Asia correspondent. His next book, "Asian Waters: The Strategy of Chinese Expansion and the Struggle Over the South China Sea," will be published in April 2018.

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