Vaccine shortage shows why Brexit Britain is right to tilt towards Asia

Three days on from the integrated review of the UK’s defence and foreign policy, including its much-derided plans for an “Indo-Pacific tilt”, and here we are being furnished with a perfect example of why it might not be such a silly idea to pay more attention to that part of the world after all. 

The UK’s vaccination efforts could soon be stymied because the Indian government is halting exports. The Serum Institute of India says the second batch of five million doses of the Oxford vaccine destined for the UK has yet to be given the green light by New Delhi, which is struggling to deal with its own surge in Covid cases.

From vaccines, to PPE, to travel restrictions, the pandemic has reinforced the idea that no country is an island, entire of itself. Domestic economic prosperity cannot be separated from robust global supply chains and international security. This, broadly speaking, was the driving impetus of the integrated review. 

And yet the “most radical reassessment of [the UK’s] place in the world since the end of the Cold War” has been characterised by many as some kind of Boy’s Own, post-imperial spasm from a country that has deluded itself into believing it can “punch above its weight” on the global stage. 

Exhibit A: Boris Johnson’s decision to send an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, which has been described in some quarters as a deliberate snub to Europe. It is as if the UK has decided to revive gunboat diplomacy just without the diplomacy (and not many gunboats). 

But (if I might cross-examine the witness, your Honour) isn’t the Royal Navy actually taking part in joint exercises with the US, Australian, Japanese and [*small cough* / pause / sideways glance at the jury] Dutch forces? And didn’t the French send a nuclear attack submarine to the very same waters just last month? 

Does this mean that Emmanuel Macron is also snubbing Europe? Or might it instead suggest that foreign policy is a tad more nuanced than the prosecution would have us believe?

There’s also a paradox to the criticism of the Government’s attitude to China: it is simultaneously being lambasted for not standing up to an increasingly authoritarian regime in Beijing while also being described as too puny to do so. 

In reality the review was far more pragmatic and far less arrogant than the critics would have you believe. Yes, the Government wants to focus more on Asia. But mostly in the context of boosting trade through proposed membership of the CPTPP, the trans-Pacific trade bloc. In other words the UK is planning to work with others, within existing structures, in order to advocate its values. 

The hope is to take some of the heat out of the relationship with China by building a firewall of support in the region and making our opposition to Beijing’s revanchist policies more implicit. Sounds quite sensible really.

It is true that the UK’s retreat from its role “east of Suez” under Harold Wilson was driven by a dwindling share of global trade, combined with rising domestic expenditure, and not, as Boris Johnson has sometimes claimed, a lack of pluck on the part of “defeatists” and “retreatists”.

But equally, the UK is not planning a full scale redeployment of troops across Asia or to reestablish our frontiers in the Himalayas. What’s more, globalisation has somewhat advanced since the 1960s; we now have many vested interests east of Suez whether we like it or not. How many vaccines did we import from India in Wilson’s day?

There is, in fairness, an irony to this. There was a great deal of scepticism among the trade experts within the Department for International Trade about joining the CPTPP. They quietly pointed out the lack of any real mechanism for the UK to join the bloc, that it could weaken our negotiating position with Australia and New Zealand and, well, we’re located somewhat closer to the Atlantic than the Pacific. 

But from a PR perspective it was just too deliciously tempting an opportunity to pass up. If the UK is accepted, it will be joining a bloc that was responsible for a very similar percentage of world trade as the European Union but has nothing to say on how members manage their borders. Many of these countries, in sharp contrast to the EU (and, indeed, the UK), boast fast-growing economies. 

So yes, we might have arrived where we are more by accident than carefully designed statecraft. But following Brexit, it makes sense for the UK to start reestablishing itself on the world stage through a security agenda, where it has undoubted strengths: a top class diplomatic corps, a prominent seat at the Nato table and membership of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. 

The review is currently uncosted and certainly not perfect. The decision to increase the cap on nuclear weapons feels like a policy specifically designed to put Labour in a bind. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which we fire off 180 nuclear warheads and are left kicking ourselves that we don’t have another 80 to let loose. There is also, for the time being, a very obvious Europe-shaped hole in the nation’s foreign and defence policies.

That said, security should be an area in which the UK could start mending its relationship with the EU. Some criticised the Government for keeping intelligence sharing and foreign policy out of the scope of the Brexit agreement, arguing it reduced our leverage during the negotiations. Now it looks like an astute omission; an area that is hopefully untarnished by the rankle and acrimony of the last five years, a foundation on which bridges can be rebuilt.

The overall thrust of the review strikes the right balance between ambition and humility for a sub-superpower state navigating the threats and opportunities of today’s hyper-connected world. 

Earlier this month, Antony Blinken, the new US secretary of state, said: “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”

One suspects that if such a sentiment had been expressed by the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab it would be instantly derided as “cakeism”, the latest example of the UK’s hopelessly muddled attitude towards China.

Coming from the US secretary of state, such triangulation, which strikes a remarkably similar tone to the UK’s stated aims, can be described as what it is: diplomacy.

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