UK tilting toward Indo-Pacific to counterweight China ‘immature’ decision
Published: Mar 16, 2021 10:15 PM
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the House of Commons in London, Britain, on Oct 29, 2019. File photo:Xinhua

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the House of Commons in London, Britain, on Oct 29, 2019. File photo:Xinhua

 The UK issued its biggest review of foreign and defense policy since the end of the Cold War on Tuesday, in which it vowed to cement the country's presence in the Indo-Pacific region and challenge China where necessary. Yet the "immature" policy decision, originating from London's fantasy of reviving its past glory as a world superpower, not only downgrades itself as a toady of the US, also exposes the UK's over-optimism of its current international status, observers opined. 

The so-called challenge taken by the UK, a past world power whose international presence is diminishing and whose national strength is greatly weakening, against China, a rising power who bounced back fastest from COVID-19 and is the only major economy to see positive growth last year, cannot be mentioned in the same breath as the competition Beijing is having with Washington, and at best can only be a "war of words."

The UK wants to expand its influence among countries in the Indo-Pacific region to try to moderate China's global dominance, Reuters cited the document laying out post-Brexit foreign and defense policy priorities as saying on Tuesday. 

The 100-page document called the Indo-Pacific "increasingly the geopolitical center of the world," the government highlighted a planned British aircraft carrier deployment to the region and said a previously postponed visit by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to India would go ahead in April.

"China and the UK both benefit from bilateral trade and investment, but China also presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK's economic security," the report said.

Toady of the US

After acrimonious divorce with the EU at the end of last year, the UK has been eager to expand its influence globally. The Johnson government has bet its hopes on this report to show Britain still has clout on the world stage and tries to define a new era for the country.

Yet in the eyes of some observers, such ambition reveals London's overconfidence in its current international status and national strength. 

"Brexit has amplified what we might call a 'Britannia rules the waves' nostalgia. The UK has isolated itself from Europe, its exports to Europe have dropped 40.7 percent in January and now it is trying to frame itself 'global Britain' to compensate for the short fall and present itself as a naval power again," Tom Fowdy, a British political and international relations analyst told the Global Times on Tuesday, noting that this British exceptionalism also leads it to follow the US.

Brexit has essentially exploited Britain's strategic weaknesses and made it more vulnerable to the will of the US, he said. 

After taking office, US President Joe Biden has enhanced the US presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Last week, Biden and the leaders of Australia, India and Japan - countries that together form the Quad alliance - pledged at their first summit to work to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific and to cooperate on maritime, cyber and economic security, as well as the "challenge" posed by China.

The UK's new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth  is set to be deployed in May to conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea with the US and Japanese navies, British media reported in February.

Observers brushed aside the significance of the Quad meeting due to divergences between members, noting there is hardly room for the UK to cement its status, not to mention confront China in this region.

Yang Xiyu, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, told the Global Times that "the former colonizer in the Indo-Pacific region can hardly relive its past due to its declining economic strength."

The UK also wanted to flex its military muscle in the region, but it cannot afford to send aircraft carriers to the region as frequently as the US nor can it build any military base there, Yang said, noting that the UK failed to see that it cannot do much in the Indo-Pacific region, and its "return" will not bring any impact to regional countries.

Observers noted that the UK is fully aware of how little return it will gain by making such a "strategic shift," as the country - not on the Pacific Rim - has limited assets in the region. When the British Foreign Policy Group asked Britons in February whether they support the UK's greater involvement in the region, more than 50 percent said they did not know, or opposed the shift. 

Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies, China Institute of International Studies, said that to prove its value to the US, the UK feels the need to closely follow the US and act as the most vocal partner to confront China. 

"London still views itself as an 'empire on which the sun never sets' who sees betting in a contest between the world's two top powers, China and the US, as something that suits its international status," according to Cui.

Observers noted that downgrading itself to little more than a "toady" of the US may backfire on London, as if it entangles itself in the China-US competition and damages Beijing's core interests, it will meet fierce retaliation from China. 

A woman wearing a face mask walks along Westminster Bridge in London, Britain, on Feb. 17, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

A woman wearing a face mask walks along Westminster Bridge in London, Britain, on Feb. 17, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

Ignorance of its ability

Yet experts noted that the UK has showed ignorance of its national strength and international status with its meddling in the competition between China and the US.

"Competition between Beijing and Washington is inevitable as China's rapid rise has put itself in the same ring to compete with the US at many fronts, be it international leadership or the economic field," according to Cui, noting the UK is no more than a pawn to the US in Washington's containment of China. 

"It is even not the most powerful chess piece of the US, as the UK's declining national strength can't match up with China's. Also it is not as diehard a China hawk as Australia," Cui said.

Amid its hardening attitude toward China, the UK is also showing some different sides. For example, Johnson said recently that he was "fervently Sinophile" and was determined to improve ties "whatever the occasional political difficulties."

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Tuesday that Britain would like a positive relationship with China, but not at the expense of upholding its values. "We will never relent or stop standing up for our values, including the values of open societies, democracy and human rights," Raab told Sky News.

Bilateral ties between Beijing and London have been severely frayed in recent years, after the latter recklessly intervened in China's domestic affairs, ranging from Hong Kong to Xinjiang, and smeared China on COVID-19. 

The UK hopes to move closer to the US on the so-called democratic value, standing together with the US on issues such as human rights, but Britain's preaching of democracy and blaming China's human rights are mostly empty statements without practical measures. They will not deter China's resolution in affairs relating Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea, Yang said. 

Observers said that unlike the competition between China and the US, which focuses on influential fields such as trade, high-tech and military, the so-called "competition" launched by a declining UK to a rising China will be no more than a "war of words."