On February 3, Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid naked his long-awaited imaginative and prescient of a “world Britain” in a world after Brexit. Talking amidst the imperial grandeur of Previous Royal Naval School in Greenwich, Johnson’s message was that the UK, liberated from the straitjacket of EU membership, can be free to carve out a assured, dynamic and outward-looking position on the world stage in a post-Brexit period — whilst the primary handful of COVID-19 infections took root on British soil.
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Six months and a worldwide pandemic later, Britain faces the distinctive and unprecedented problem of redefining its place in a world that’s within the midst of a historic watershed second. The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a catalyst for deep-rooted developments which have lengthy been evident to politicians, policymakers and analysts alike — none extra so than the tectonic shift within the globe’s geopolitical middle of gravity from West to East.
Whether or not or not it’s China’s much-publicized “wolf-warrior” diplomacy in opposition to states criticizing its preliminary response to the outbreak, or the preliminary success of East Asian states in confronting the pandemic utilizing synthetic intelligence and digital surveillance, COVID-19 has proven that the much-hyped “Asian century” just isn’t merely a future prognosis however a present-day actuality.
Brexit Britain on the World Stage
If the pandemic has served to spice up Asia’s picture on the world stage, the other is true for Brexit Britain. The UK’s bumbling response to the COVID-19 disaster has confirmed lots of the suspicions of ill-placed grandeur held in overseas capitals for the reason that referendum to go away the European Union in 2016.
Regardless of Johnson’s boastful confidence in Britain’s “world-beating” response to the novel coronavirus (which causes the COVID-19 illness), deadly early errors by the federal government — notably the preliminary refusal to implement a lockdown in a forlorn effort to protect the financial system — have resulted in Britain struggling the worst of each worlds. Not solely is the UK going through one of many highest per-capita demise charges and the worst financial fallout because of COVID-19 within the developed world, however the state of affairs has been exacerbated by the looming menace of no post-Brexit commerce deal being agreed with the EU by the tip of 2020.
On this context, a worldwide Britain’s success in navigating the more and more unstable “new regular” of the post-pandemic geopolitical order will hinge greater than ever on the federal government’s potential to leverage ties with companions previous and new throughout the Asian continent.
Johnson’s imaginative and prescient of a buccaneering world Britain on the world stage is essentially predicated upon two core pillars: commerce and safety. Whitehall is acutely conscious that Britain’s potential to harness the ascendance of Asia’s rising powerhouses hinges upon placing a fragile steadiness between these two, typically inconsistent, goals.
On one hand, Britain’s strategic planners look hungrily towards modern geopolitical hotspots just like the South China Sea as testing grounds for a brand new forceful safety footprint within the Indo-Pacific area. Britain’s armed forces already possess a string of strategic outposts, from the Brunei-based Gurkha garrison to Royal Naval logistical hubs in Singapore and Diego Garcia. The not too long ago fashioned UK Defence Employees (Asia Pacific) has outlined plans for an additional base in Southeast Asia in a bid to affirm Britain’s dedication to upholding the regional safety structure.
In a symbolic gesture, the scheduled deployment of the Royal Navy’s model new state-of-the-art plane service, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to conduct “freedom of navigation” patrols within the disputed South China Sea throughout 2021 is indicative of a wholesale rejection of the strategic retrenchment from east of Suez that has typified British safety coverage within the Indo-Pacific for the reason that 1960s.
Beijing’s Sphere of Affect
However, such grandiose ambitions of a extra assertive navy and diplomatic footprint in Asia don’t come with out their prices. Given China’s more and more assertive posture on the worldwide stage for the reason that outbreak of COVID-19, it isn’t unreasonable to anticipate the diplomatic blowback from Britain’s perceived meddling inside Beijing’s sphere of affect to develop stronger within the post-COVID period.
In July, after the UK provided citizenship to nearly Three million Hong Kong residents following Beijing’s implementation of a controversial new safety regulation in Britain’s ex-colony, China issued a strongly-worded but ambiguous menace of “retaliation.” China’s response is illustrative of the truth that Brexit Britain’s potential to completely harness the Asian century depends upon London taking part in second fiddle to the preferences of Tokyo, Beijing and New Delhi.
Regardless of Johnson’s lofty rhetoric hailing Britain’s post-Brexit transformation right into a “nice, world buying and selling nation,” such a imaginative and prescient just isn’t precisely conducive to geopolitical maneuvers that may all too readily be perceived as antagonistic by potential companions. As an illustration, Whitehall’s backpedaling over the contracting of Huawei, a Chinese language expertise firm, to assemble giant tracts of Britain’s 5G infrastructure over nationwide safety issues doesn’t bode effectively for a future UK–China free commerce deal. Equally, efforts to introduce restrictions on immigration by way of the adoption of an Australia-style points-based system have proved to be a sticking level in post-Brexit commerce negotiations with India, the previous “jewel of the empire” with whom Britain shares intensive historic, cultural and linguistic ties.
As a worldwide Britain seeks to navigate a post-pandemic order characterised by elevated nice energy antagonism, retreating globalization and resurgent authoritarianism, Whitehall’s strategic planners should be ready to make hard-headed compromises between geopolitical and financial goals in Asia in a fashion that has been sorely missing from Brexit negotiations with Britain’s European companions. Reduce adrift from Europe at a time when the worldwide order is changing into more and more fragmented into competing regional blocs, a rudderless Britain missing a coherent, sustainable imaginative and prescient of the way it seeks to interact with Asia’s rising superpowers dangers changing into caught in the course of an escalating chilly warfare between the US and China.
Cause for Optimism
Regardless of the gloomy prognosis for a worldwide Britain standing on the daybreak of the Asian century, there stays cause for optimism as soon as the short-term shockwaves of the pandemic have receded. Britain’s elite universities retain a mystical attract for formidable younger Asians in search of a world-class training. China, India, Hong Kong and Malaysia account for 4 of the highest 5 international locations of origin for worldwide college students within the UK. As well as, with two main vaccine candidates in improvement at Oxford and Imperial, a British breakthrough within the struggle in opposition to COVID-19 would additional bolster Britain’s status as a worldwide hub of analysis and innovation.
Such cutting-edge educational experience — mixed with London’s enduring standing as a worldwide monetary middle, post-2021 visa and immigration reforms focusing on highly-skilled professionals, and the cultural imprint of enormous Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Chinese language diasporas — ensures that even post-Brexit Britain possesses the latent potential not solely to draw top-class Asian expertise, but additionally to emerge as one of many Asian century’s greatest winners outdoors of the Indo-Pacific. While Brexit has undercut the Blairite imaginative and prescient of Britain as a “pivotal energy” bridging the hole between the US and Europe, the UK’s deep-rooted historic, cultural, linguistic and financial ties with Asia’s rising powers present ample scope for recasting Britain as a pivot on a grander scale: as a worldwide hub bridging East and West.
Nevertheless, such aspirations stay little greater than wishful considering except British policymakers can formulate a coherent strategy towards the Asian century, which has up to now been absent. However, tentative steps have been taken in such a course over latest months. Whitehall’s merging of the Division for Worldwide Improvement with the International Workplace is prone to deal a blow to British affect in less-developed corners of Asia, no less than within the brief time period. But Johnson’s renewed dedication to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas help permits a extra cohesive, long-term strategy with developmental points, permitting funding to be streamlined towards groups of world-class specialists, such because the UK Local weather Change Unit in Indonesia or the Stabilisation Unit supporting post-conflict reconstruction in fragile states like Pakistan and Myanmar.
Equally, the International Workplace’s latest adoption of an “All of Asia” technique is indicative of a extra complete strategy to forging partnerships throughout the continent, balancing conflicting safety, diplomatic, commerce, developmental priorities, as illustrated via the institution of the UK’s first everlasting mission to Affiliation of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc in January 2020.
Earlier than It Units Sail
As the character of post-pandemic world order emerges over the approaching months and years, a worldwide Britain will discover itself navigating a turbulent geopolitical surroundings made infinitely more difficult by the aftershocks of the coronavirus. This features a worldwide financial disaster, decreased globalization, declining religion in multilateral establishments and rising nice energy pressure, all of which threaten to derail Johnson’s post-Brexit voyage into the unknown earlier than it has even set sail.
While Britain and its Western allies have bungled their response to the general public well being disaster, Asia’s dynamic rising powers are already bouncing again from the pandemic and laying the constructing blocks to make sure that the 21st century actually is Asian. From Beijing’s “Belt and Highway Initiative” to New Delhi’s “Make in India” to formidable future imaginative and prescient tasks corresponding to Saudi Arabia’s Imaginative and prescient 2030, Imaginative and prescient of Indonesia 2045 or Kazakhstan 2050, Asia’s rising powerhouses all champion built-in strategic frameworks to harness the unprecedented shift in world wealth and energy eastward, which the COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed.
A worldwide Britain’s best mistake can be to complement such a long-term calculated technique with the half-baked geopolitical gambits which have up to now typified Brexit Britain’s strategy to the world’s largest continent. Certainly, for the UK to actually unleash its full potential within the dawning Asian century, it should look to Asia itself for inspiration.
*[Will Marshall is an intern at Gulf State Analytics, which is a media accomplice of Honest Observer.]
The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Honest Observer’s editorial coverage.