In 2011 Barack Obama’s administration launched the ‘Pivot to East Asia’. A new foreign policy aimed at steering the United States’ geopolitical strategy to the Asian continent. The main reasons for this new approach were the rise of China as a super global power and the increasing importance of the East Asian countries, both in economical and political terms. However, the United States is not the only western country in having undertaken such a direction. Even if on a smaller scale, the United Kingdom too, for similar reasons, is shifting its political and military resources from Europe to Asia …

 

Towards a new British foreign policy in Asia?

In December 2014 it was announced that the naval base HMS Jufair in Bahrain will be reopened after its closure in 1971. The military installation is going to be ready by November 2017. It will have the capacity to host any Royal Navy ship, including the two new aircraft carriers Queen Elizabeth class. The opening will bring for the first time since the 70s a permanent military base east of the Suez, signalling a renewed desire from London to re-establish its geopolitical commitment in the Persian Gulf.

The HMS Jufair stands in an ideal location. It provides vital support for overseas missions by extending the range of action available to the armed forces, without having to rely on other countries. But if the Middle East and the Persian Gulf have always been at the centre of British strategic thinking even during the Cold War, the Far East is the real newcomer. In a recent speech in Australia, the foreign minister Boris Johnson said the United Kingdom will send, as soon as they are ready, its ‘colossal warships’ to the South China Sea as a direct challenge to China’s sovereignty claim.

With Brexit and Britain’s growing economy and population, the Eurasian continent has acquired a particular importance. London is now trying to strengthen its military bonds with India and Japan — the main competitors of Beijing — in order to provide stability in the region and reinforce the US’ containment policy towards China.

The prime minister Theresa May referred to India as a ‘key strategic partner’, while Boris Johnson pledged to be ‘more committed to the Asia-Pacific region and to Australia’. Johnson also remarked on the possibility of ‘increasingly sharing military intelligence’ between London and New Delhi.

As for Japan, the leaders of the two countries have recently agreed to enhance their military and defence cooperation. The deployment of British aircrafts in trilateral trials alongside Japan and US in 2016 marked a milestone in their defence cooperation. Besides, the two islands have recently formed a commission appointed to study the possibility of a joint programme for the building of an Anglo-Japanese aircraft of the latest generation.

However, Brexit complicates everything. If it is true that in leaving the EU London will look for new partnerships in an attempt not to lose its reputation as a global power, slower GDP growth could hamper the ‘British Pivot’ to Asia. If damages are not minimized, Britain risks entering another recession, further cuts to the armed forces — already in a critical situation — and cuts to the foreign office budget. In case of this outcome materialising, it would be more difficult for Britain to prove its military strength and political efficiency in front of others and appeal to the richer and more heavily populated Asian countries.

Britain’s isolation though could unexpectedly turn it towards assertiveness and aggressiveness — just as it happened several years ago with Russia. London certainly does not lack in ambition or strategic and global thinking, but all this will require a much stronger military system to support it. It will also need to build a stable relationship with the EU and within its own presently disunited boarders before it can take any leaps or bounds towards Asia.