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Foreign Policy

Castle in the air?

Jun 21, 2021
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Brexit gave the government of the United Kingdom a free hand to move away from the constraints of the European Union. Now that it can walk its own path, it released its 111-page Comprehensive Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy in March, which maps out a new future for the UK and tries to restore its global leadership.

The report covers key areas of the world, security issues that concern the UK and its planned responses. It highlights the worldwide interests of “global Britain” and stresses that the UK will take Brexit as an opportunity to reach out, restore its presence globally and revive the strength of the British Empire.

In a sense, the recent voyage to the Indo-Pacific region by the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest warship in the history of the British Royal Navy, serves as a snapshot of the report’s meaning for the international community. Over the span of 28 weeks, the carrier group will sail across the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea, from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, and then northward to the western Pacific before returning to Britain.

The voyage of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific is an important part of the vision of a global Britain, and it represents a big turning point in British foreign policy. Britain has traditionally served as a bridge between the United States and the EU, but Brexit has taken the wind out of that sail. So Britain is looking for a new role in world affairs — hence the term global Britain to capture the idea.

The postwar era saw two major adjustments in British foreign policy. The first took place in 1968, when the dual pressure of an international payment crisis and the collapse of the colonial system pushed the British government to withdraw all military bases east of the Suez Canal, including in Asia and the Gulf regions. This essentially marked the end of efforts to uphold British imperial rule worldwide.

The current recalibration of British foreign policy has practically overturned and reshaped the first great readjustment. Yet the idea of global Britain smacks of anachronistic aspirations toward empire. The HMS Queen Elizabeth voyage is part of a concerted effort by the UK and its allies to revitalize Britain’s global presence. Could it return the world to a pre-1968 balance of power? Obviously not. 

The report puts forward some unrealistic assumptions and proposals, disregarding Britain’s declining power. With the Indo-Pacific as the focus of its policy readjustment, Britain is not so much pivoting toward the Indo-Pacific as it is returning to the region. Britain offered to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (CPTPP) , a much watered-down version of the TPP, in an attempt to trade on its current terms so that the UK could make up for the loss of Brexit and ride the rapid economic growth of East Asia. However, as a former EU member, if the UK didn’t enjoy the same opportunities as other member states, what are the odds of achieving that when it goes solo? Its mindset may be just so much wishful thinking. Moreover, it is not wise to send the Royal Navy eastward, as it calls up the negative memory of gunboat diplomacy.  

Britain’s return to the Indo-Pacific follows the tune of the United States, arbitrarily playing up the so-called challenge of “freedom of navigation” as an excuse to boost the UK’s presence and influence in the region. It can only be called militarization of the South China Sea when many countries from outside the region flex their muscles, stir up trouble and stoke tensions. The report revives the five-nation defense pact, which had been dormant for 50 years, as a tool to intervene in affairs related to the South China Sea.  

The report’s approach to China is also unrealistic. On one hand, it emphasizes “China’s growing strength in the world” and the UK’s “continued positive trade and investment relationship with China.” But it also asserts that China “poses systemic challenges to our security, prosperity and values,” and it makes frequent moves on issues related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea. Britain wants to deepen its economic and trade ties with China while adhering to its own values and interfering in China’s internal affairs. But having one’s cake and eating it too is a daydream.

In addition, the report contains a number of ambitious ideas to demonstrate Britain’s global power status, such as an increase in the UK’s defense budget by $22.6 billion over the next four years and an announcement that its nuclear stockpile will expand to a maximum of 260 warheads, a whopping 40 percent increase over 2010. In addition, it will achieve “technological superpower” status by 2030 and continue to be renowned for its leadership on security, diplomacy, development, conflict resolution and poverty reduction. It will also launch a new national cyberforce to police the “new frontier” of space and cyberwar, among other things.

According to public information, the HMS Queen Elizabeth   carried only 18 F-35B aircraft, though it has a capacity for 36. Eight of these fighters are from the Royal Navy and 10 are on loan from the United States Marine Corps. 

Much is envisioned regarding the HMS Queen Elizabeth battle group. But the report’s biggest flaw is its blindness to Britain’s declining power. The UK’s national finances are in freefall as the country has been hit hardest among the G7 in the wake of COVID-19. This is compounded by the impact of Brexit on trade with the EU. The UK’s national debt stands at more than $2.8 trillion, which is close to 100 percent of its GDP and rising. A fiscally strapped Britain can ill afford the overseas waltz of its aircraft carrier, nor the ambitious promise of a global Britain.

In April, the British government slashed its foreign aid, including humanitarian aid to Yemen, bilateral assistance to sub-Saharan Africa and funding for water, sanitation and health projects overseas. The relationship between the UK and the EU is strained, with all the disputes caused by Brexit far from settled, which means the fallout of Brexit remains the primary obstacle between the UK and the EU.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth’s mission to the Indo-Pacific reveals unmistakable signs of decline. The UK’s strength and influence have been undermined and weakened by Brexit and its aftermath, and the idea of global Britain may well turn out to be an empty promise useful only for political grandstanding.

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