10 June 2022

How to make Global Britain a reality in the Indo-Pacific

By Sir Richard Ottaway

President Biden’s visit to Japan a couple of weeks ago was like a scene from Dr Strangelove. Leaders of the Quad Nations – India, the UK, US and Japan – met for a fourth time while Chinese and Russian bomber jets flew over Japanese waters.

The most consequential news from the summit, however, was the creation of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). The US, along with 12 Indo-Pacific countries, agreed to solidify their relationships and engage in crucial economic and trade matters in the region. It marked an emblematic shift towards Asia-Pacific that has been a long time coming. However, it begs the question in the era of ‘Global Britain’: where is the UK in all this?

Since Brexit, we have only signed three new trade agreements. We’ve agreed to 35 ‘trade continuity agreements’ covering 67 countries, but these only replicated existing agreements, and efforts to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) have led nowhere. Relationships with crucial potential economic and security partners – from Singapore to the Philippines – are no further advanced than five years ago.

The main trading partner for more than half of the IPEF‘s founding members is China. Those countries’ decision to join IPEF, which explicitly excludes China, is a clear signal of their intent to balance China’s influence and ensure their economic security. Decades of globalisation, diffusion of information technology and the wide availability of financial capital have given these countries more independence and motivation.

The Indo-Pacific is projected to be the biggest driver of global growth for the next 30 years. Its geography, natural resources, demography and position within global value chains all combine to form strong macroeconomic outlooks. As the region is the home of nearly 3 billion people, the Indo-Pacific will only increase in geopolitical and economic importance over the coming decades.

The UK’s 2021 Integrated Review rightly identified Asia-Pacific (APAC) as where the UK must focus its efforts to forge a truly Global Britain. The UK must look beyond Europe if it wishes to remain a preeminent global force and driver of positive change. It’s absence from APAC, particularly given China’s influence in the region, needs immediate remedying.

While India, Indonesia and Singapore often capture the most attention, the Philippines currently presents the most potential for closer relationships with the West. Its mineral wealth – estimated to have the second-largest gold deposits after South Africa, and one of the largest copper deposits in the world – educated workforce, and underdeveloped tourism sector mean the country has vast potential. It is estimated that $5.3tn worth of goods are shipped through the South China Sea annually, adding to the Philippines unrivalled geostrategic importance.

The arrival of new leadership offers a window of opportunity to sow the seeds of greater cooperation. With the departure of President Duterte, newly elected President Marcos Jr, commonly known as ‘Bongbong’, appears to be different from his predecessor. While President-elect Bongbong has shared little on his policies, his background – including education in the UK and US – points to a rapprochement to the US and a clear interest in the UK.

There are some early signs that Bongbong will aim to re-strengthen ties with the US from trade to security. His announcement that he would protect the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the South China Sea, and uphold the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling invalidating most of China’s South China Sea claims, is a significant departure from his predecessor’s stance.

There is a real opportunity for Bongbong to be everything Duterte wasn’t, paving the way for closer relations with the West. Not a pompous populist with flagrant rhetoric, but a technocratic statesman that understands the Philippines’ current state and its position in the world. To sustain the positive momentum that won him the elections, Bongbong will need to show results quickly. This provides the UK with a golden opportunity to make Global Britain a reality, establishing strong and lasting strategic cooperation agreements from everything between foreign direct investments (FDIs) to security partnerships.

The involvement of 12 separate Indo-Pacific countries in the IPEF, many of whom are closely-knit to China, should have set alarm bells off in the Department for International Trade. The UK must capitalise on the evident desire to widen economic relationships with countries beyond China and present the choice of a British balance to these Indo-Pacific nations. These Asian Tigers are demonstrating their hunger to foster new agreements to bolster trade – now Global Britain must step up to the plate.

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Sir Richard Ottaway is a foreign policy consultant. He was Conservative MP for Croydon South from 1992-2015 and chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee from 2010-2015.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.