The UK’s Integrated Review outlines a comprehensive Indo-Pacific framework, but overlooks some challenges facing London’s ‘Indo-Pacific tilt.’
In mid-March, the United Kingdom released its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, to become the fourth European country to announce an Indo-Pacific strategy. London's move follows the adoption of Indo-Pacific strategies by key EU members — France, Germany, and the Netherlands, over the past three years. The Integrated Review’s comprehensive Indo-Pacific Framework is an attempt to actualise the UK’s residual footprint of strategically-located overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific.
With the East emerging as the centre of gravity of contemporary geopolitics, London's ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ incurs no surprise. Moreover, the review is being touted as a crucial building-block of the UK’s aspiration for a ‘Global Britain’ in the post-Brexit timeline. Hence, the ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ hones implications from the standpoint of both — shoring up the UK’s international clout and its emphasis on diversifying its trade and security relationships.
With the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), the UK hones a highly strategic overseas territory at the heart of the Indian Ocean. The territory expands about 1,770 kilometre east of Seychelles and 2,180 kilometres northeast of Port Luis, Mauritius. The territory is an archipelago of 58 islands and covers around 6,40,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean. However, the island has a total land area of only 60 square kilometres. It is also known as the Chagos Archipelago, of which the largest and southern-most island is Diego Garcia with a total area of 44 square kilometres.
This British ‘residual footprint’ in the Indian Ocean subregion dates back to 1841 when the Indian Ocean was known as the “British Lake” under Pax Britannica. Thus, the current nomenclature of the BIOT reflects Britain’s colonial past and it was formed in 1965, before Mauritius’ independence in 1968. Consequently, the island was detached from Mauritius on a compensatory grant of UK£ 3 million by London to Port Luis. Currently, the BIOT is governed from London by a commissioner appointed by the Queen and the civilian administration is looked at by a Royal Navy Commander, who is appointed as the commissioner’s representative. Hence, the incumbent Commander Ben Merrick of the Royal Navy also serves as the highest civilian authority on the island of Diego Garcia.
Between the 1960s and 1970s, British authorities relocated some 1,400-1,700 residents of the archipelago — known as Chagossians or Ilois, to Mauritius and Seychelles. UK’s relocation of inhabitants of the Diego Garcia reportedly also encompassed grave human rights violations. Moreover, in 2019, the International Court of Justice ruled that “Chagos has been separated from Mauritius illegally, in violation of both the right of self-determination and the territorial integrity of Mauritius.” However, Diego Garcia specifically, serves the security interests of the UK and United States, as the UK leased that island to the US for its military base in 1965. Currently, the same is home to around 3,000 British and American personnel.
In basing its policy on this ‘residual presence’ in the Indian Ocean, the UK will also have to iron-out divergences with India, which the review identifies as a critical partner in London’s strategy. New Delhi’s support for Mauritian sovereignty over Chagos is grounded in history and in consideration of legal precedents. Moreover, the India-Mauritius dynamic is unique, with the two sides signing the first of its kind trade-pact, the “Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement” (CECPA) in February 2021. With this, Mauritius became the first African country in the Indian Ocean littorals to have comprehensive trade ties with India. In addition, India-Mauritius also signed security agreements, chiefly on India’s transfer of a Dornier Aircraft and an Advanced Light Helicopter on lease to Mauritius.
Moreover, the integrated review has seemingly underestimated the momentum of shifts in the broader Indo-Pacific. To begin with, London’s reluctance to transfer Diego Garcia to Mauritius stands in contradiction with the fundamental principles of “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” under the envisioned ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific.’ This raises questions over the UK’s commitment to a “rules-based-order,” particularly in context of the International Court of Justice (ICJ ruling that “urged the UK to cooperate with Mauritius and to pose no impediment to realise its right to self-determination.” Furthermore, following the 2019 ICJ ruling, even the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted for “a resolution affirming that Chagos was an integral part of Mauritius and called on Britain to withdraw from the islands within six months.”
In addition, while the integrated review’s focus on shared values and “will” to fight global challenges together with its allies complements the broad consensus in the Indo-Pacific, challenges posed by Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be ignored. The UK’s strategic aspirations in the region are certain to be impeded by its limited resources. The UK’s post-Brexit defence budget set at 2.1 percent of GDP is likely to witness further strains. Thus, it is unlikely that the UK will play an exuberant military role in the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, it would be interesting to watch how the UK walks the talk over becoming “a European country with Global Interests,” with its declining export share to the EU (already down to 43 per cent in 2019 from 54 percent in 2002) also spurring the UK’s tilt towards China.
The enunciation of UK’s policy towards China in the integrated review raises serious questions about the UK’s ability to have a twin-track foreign policy — with significant economic reliance on China and the desire for an independent policy in the Indo-Pacific. Jo Johnson (former Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation) recently opined that the post-Brexit UK is in no position for a “Chexit,” whereby the UK would decouple its economy from China.
In 2019, China was the UK’s sixth-largest export market worth UK£ 30.7 billion. As per the UK’s Office of National Statistics (March 2021), UK-EU trade recorded a record downturn in January as its economy struggles with ambiguous post-Brexit rules. With such a decline in the UK’s relationship with the EU and amidst rising anti-China sentiments across the world, questions remain over the UK managing to strike a balance between the EU and China. The review hardly addresses this dichotomy and overlooks the long-term implications of Chinese investments in the UK.
In addition, the integrated review underscores a “multi-stakeholder” model to tackle contemporary challenges in the region. Beyond allies and like-minded partners, the review identifies non-state actors, particularly Big Tech companies to meet the region’s needs for digitisation. The review’s emphasis on a multi-stakeholder model also suites the need to collectively tackle ever-evolving challenges in the domains of cybersecurity, space, maritime terrorism, cyber terrorism, and climate change. The UK’s application to become a dialogue partner of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its quest to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will be critical in the implementation of this multi-stakeholder model.
However, at the same time, the review seeks to have the UK lead the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) by striving to maintain its position as the second-largest defence spender. This only signifies that Transatlantic security will continue to remain as the UK’ primary focus, regardless of its rhetoric on the Indo-Pacific.
Hence, although the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy 2021 reflects the imperatives of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain,’ the review itself lacks “integration” within its different policy strata. To play an active role, the UK must recognise the significance of its commitment to the “rules-based” order that has been envisioned for the Indo-Pacific. This would require London to revisit its strategy, which is currently based on its residual footprint in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, London also needs to ascertain a balance over its economic and security interests between China, its continued emphasis on transatlantic security and its impending Indo-Pacific tilt.
The author is Research Intern at ORF.
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