Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Foreign Policy

Rishi Sunak spies Britain’s future — in the Indo-Pacific

Press play to listen to this article

Voiced by artificial intelligence.

BALI, Indonesia — Rishi Sunak wants to forge a new path for Britain after Brexit. His sights are set firmly on a region close to his heart — the Indo-Pacific.

New to the world stage after a meteoric rise to power this fall, Sunak was a leader in need of a foreign policy ahead of his first major trip abroad as prime minister to the G20 summit in Bali.

But during a whirlwind round of tropical diplomacy this week, Sunak wholeheartedly embraced plans for an Indo-Pacific “tilt” in Britain’s post-Brexit global strategy.

It was an idea first championed by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss following Britain’s EU departure — but Sunak’s supporters believe he is far better placed to deliver it than either of his predecessors.

“The boss will be brilliant in Southeast Asia,” an aide to the prime minister said. “Part of it is this great curiosity about how it is that a man of Asian heritage has become prime minister of the U.K.”

Sunak’s parents are both of Indian origin and migrated to the U.K. from southeast Africa in the 1960s. He is the first person of Asian background to become prime minister.

“I don’t think MPs or many people in the U.K. have thought about that at all — but in Asia it’s hugely symbolic, hugely powerful and says a lot about who we are,” the same Sunak ally said.

Britain’s strategy will involve fostering closer relations with emerging economies in Asia, including this year’s G20 host Indonesia, who are aligned neither with the West nor Russia or China, according to senior figures familiar with his thinking. The goal is for the U.K. to have the broadest presence of any country in the region.

The president of Indonesia and host of the G20 summit, Joko Widodo, will be invited to London for talks in mid-December, according to one person involved in the discussions. He may also be offered an audience with King Charles.

Time for trade

The desire for more engagement with the Indo-Pacific is borne as much of necessity as ideology. Brexit has meant looser economic ties with the EU, Britain’s closest trading partner, compelling the U.K. government to look further afield.

A central plank to this strategy will be securing U.K. membership to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trading bloc. Sunak made a conscious decision to line up bilateral meetings at the G20 with CPTPP members including Japan, Canada and Australia.

He has built a strong rapport with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, according to a No. 10 adviser. Japan is key because it chairs the group that will decide on the U.K.’s accession to the CPTPP.

Officials still insist the U.K. hopes to conclude its accession talks this year, though in reality no deal is likely until early 2023 at best given the U.K. is pressing hard for flexibility on the bloc’s rules and standards.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) has already started to strengthen bonds with the President of Indonesia Joko Widodo (right) and other leaders of the the Indo-Pacific region as the U.K. looks to gain membership to the region’s trading bloc | Leon Neal/Getty Images)

But China’s application to join in September has complicated matters. Current CPTPP members are now refusing to “dumb down” the requirements on areas including agriculture to allow the U.K. to enter the bloc more quickly, fearful of setting a precedent that could be used as leverage by China in its own accession talks.

New Zealand’s trade minister, Damien O’Connor, said he hoped to see the U.K. join CPTPP soon, but warned Britain “does have to meet the standards laid by not just New Zealand but all CPTPP members.” He added: “We’re not prepared to dumb down or reduce any of the standards or opportunities in that trade agreement as new members come on board.”

With Britain on its third prime minister since the start of September, CPTPP members are also increasingly frustrated at the U.K.’s ongoing domestic turmoil. An official from one member country said Sunak needs to calm the political instability over the next few months before trying to build support for accession among Tory MPs already restive about the potential impact of trade deals on British farmers.

U.K. Trade Minister Nigel Huddleston insisted Britain “continues to make good progress” on negotiating CPTPP accession, “having demonstrated to members of the partnership that we are a high-standards, fair trading economy.”

Richard Graham, the U.K.’s newly reappointed trade envoy for Southeast Asia, said the benefits for Britain were clear. “Whether partnering with Southeast Asian nations for satellites or cyber, education or the environment, and from aerospace to healthcare, the U.K.’s existing footprint is already clear,” he said. “In some cases the CPTPP can take these partnerships to a new level.”

Out of the deep freeze

Sunak is making at least one significant change to U.K. foreign policy from his immediate predecessor.

While for Truss the Indo-Pacific tilt was about trading with like-minded liberal democracies in the region, Sunak takes a more pragmatic view — particularly when it comes to Asia’s largest economy, China.

He had been due to hold surprise bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the margins of the G20 summit Wednesday, although those plans unravelled as quickly as they appeared.

The meeting — which would have made Sunak the first British prime minister in nearly five years to meet Xi — was cancelled at the 11th hour, following scheduling issues caused by the need for world leaders to respond to a missile strike in Poland.

But Sunak’s decision to seek face-to-face talks was the first step towards improved relations between the two countries after years of deterioration over Beijing’s crackdown on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, its oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang and concerns about national security.

On his way to Bali, the prime minister carefully toned down the aggressive language he used on China during his leadership campaign over the summer, when he tried — unsuccessfully — to outmaneuver the more hawkish Truss on foreign policy in a desperate appeal to the Tory grassroots.

At the time he called China “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century” and attacked “politicians in Britain and across the West [who] rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions.”

Insiders say his reversion to a more conciliatory approach betrays his lack of conviction on the subject. One U.K. government official questioned: “What is the power dynamic here? It’s not clear to me that Rishi has any strong foreign policy beliefs given the gap between campaign and governance.”

But Sunak argues that dialogue with China is essential to solving global challenges such as the war in Ukraine, energy security, climate change and public health, and he would have used the meeting to invite Xi to closer ties on those issues. He remains eager to meet the Chinese president.

The last prime minister to meet Xi was Theresa May in early 2018, at a time when Downing Street was still referring to the “golden era” in relations ushered in by David Cameron.

Sunak won’t be going that far — not least because backbench Tory MPs won’t let him. He will also have to balance his engagement with Beijing with a greater focus on building ties with India, which is wary of China’s rise.

But what’s clear after Sunak’s first big turn on the global stage is that for this U.K. prime minister, Asia represents an opportunity to be grasped with both hands.

Eddy Wax contributed reporting.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You May Also Like

Europe

LONDON — Rishi Sunak sought to up his rhetoric on China on Monday while carefully opening the door to further talks with President Xi...

Europe

Jamil Anderlini is editor-in-chief of POLITICO Europe and spent two decades as a reporter in China. “Chinese people should be braver!” the young man...

Technology

Press play to listen to this article Voiced by artificial intelligence. Spain is proving the most troublesome country to probe in EU lawmakers’ ongoing...

Europe

KYIV — It’s all about the weapons — and we’ll do everything to get them to Kyiv.  That was the message from Nordic and...

Foreign Policy

BERLIN — The German government gave a piece of advice to China on Monday as the country faces historic protests against its rigid zero-COVID...

Energy

EU countries resumed last-ditch talks on Monday to secure agreement on a price cap for Russian oil, with deep splits among them on where...

Europe

Police officers are heading to the streets in Brussels on Monday, as officers demand more support from the government over violence against cops. The...

Industrial Policy

A planned reform of EU corporate taxation would substitute national business tax rules, EU Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said Monday. The “Business in Europe...