This commentary originally appeared in Journal of Governance Security & Development.
The rise of the European Union (EU) witnessed continental Europe’s gradual disengagement from the non-Atlantic world. A post-colonial ‘Little England’ struggled to maintain its relevance even while retreating from lands across oceans and seas. Pax Britannica, once global, ceded place to a trans-Atlantic compact in which Britain was one of many voices, often drowned out by the voices of others.
The Maastricht Treaty ensured Britain was just another member-state of the EU whose sovereignty, to some extent, rested not in London but Brussels. Brexit was aimed at reclaiming that bartered sovereignty and regaining the power—within and beyond Europe—Britain had surrendered between 1946 and 2016; it took four years to formalise the separation, and for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to re-hoist the banner of ‘Global Britain’. This coincides with the ongoing post-pandemic rearrangement of the international order, Britain’s stewardship of the G7 and the COP26, and its enduring role as the premier financial centre of the world through all the trials and tribulations.
Admittedly, Mr Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ faces challenges because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ too faces challenges. If the former’s ‘Global Britain’—leaving the “safe harbour of the EU … at a time of heightened global risk”—is set to sail into previously avoided turbulent seas, so is Mr Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ negotiating a new passage.
For both Britain and India, it is not about changing partners and allies but stating new purpose and intent in a profoundly changed world where pre-pandemic truisms and certitudes have been rendered meaningless. It is about rationalising international engagement. Furthermore, it is about seizing the moment to emerge as a major player in crafting the new order necessitated, in large measure, by a declining America and a rising China. Britain and India must define their role in refashioning the global landscape in which a new continent, Eurasia, and a new water body, the Indo-Pacific, dominate. India has made its move; Britain, too, must.
The Strategic Rise of the Indo-Pacific
The possible blueprint for a future whose geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic landscape is not dominated by the Middle Kingdom is obvious to all, even to those in Europe discomfited by Beijing’s seemingly inexorable continued rise and yet who are unwilling to stand up and be counted. The prospects for a future unburdened by one overwhelming power would appear brighter if nations were to forge partnerships—bilateral, minilateral, plurilateral—within and across geographies. This is already happening: The Indo-Pacific theatre offers the best and, perhaps, most dramatic example.
The political churn in the Indo-Pacific region began even before the pandemic. It gathered speed and gained purpose after the virus disrupted what were perceived to be settled global arrangements and brought to the fore the unfillable cracks that had, till then, been papered over. This churn has thrown up an indisputable fact: India is pivotal to the Indo-Pacific geography and, along with partners, will be defining the future Quad-centric ecosystem. This need not mean adding more members to the Quad comprising the US, Australia, India and Japan. As in the case of building resilient supply chains, it may only amount to specific conversations and initiatives with specific outreach partners. On issues such as climate finance, the UK is a natural Quad cousin.
Having set sail from the ‘safe harbour’ of the EU, Britain must now navigate its way to this geography where it is neither a stranger nor an intruder. Historically, the UK has been present in the Indo-Pacific region, and Britain has a sense of the nations there. Colonialism waned, but Britain’s partnerships waxed—some of its most important partnerships are in these waters; most notably, Britain has strong partnerships with individual members of the Quad, including India.
Historically, the UK has been present in the Indo-Pacific region, and Britain has a sense of the nations there. Colonialism waned, but Britain’s partnerships waxed—some of its most important partnerships are in these waters; most notably, Britain has strong partnerships with individual members of the Quad, including India
Now is the time for the UK to leverage those partnerships and demonstrate that it did not meander its way out of the EU maze directionless, but did so with firm purpose. The forces that shaped Brexit are a powerful wind in Britain’s sails, no longer constrained by either Brussels or Berlin. Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ can and must disprove those who believe it has set itself adrift with neither shore in sight nor destination in mind, by navigating towards the Indo-Pacific region, which accounts for 50 percent of global economic growth—a share that can only increase in the coming times.
Refashioning and Reviving Existing Partnerships
Besides the Quad, Britain and others have a useful and dynamic collective that could be refashioned—the Commonwealth. It is time to reimagine this grouping and give it purpose and new energy. One possibility would be to create a group of eight within the Commonwealth comprising Britain, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Singapore. These eight countries have an influence on and are implicated by the developments in the Indo-Pacific. These countries are crucial for the SDG and Climate agenda, and all of these nations are regional trade hubs and technology centers. These eight can put together a vision for growth, sustainability, technology, and global norms and rules for our future and give teeth to a grouping that has been adrift and make it contemporaneous. Global Britain needs new clubs, but, first, it must explore the opportunities that reside in old partnerships.
Indeed, this provides the perfect fit for the central core strengths of ‘Global Britain’ and the legacies of Great Britain: From finance to the green economy, from technology to knowledge, from education to creative urban design—London leads the race by miles. The British economy is structured in such a manner that other economies stand to benefit from it; there is a mutuality of commercial interest and commonality of political purpose. Unlike the EU, ‘Global Britain’ does not need to offshore its economy.
The strategic importance of ‘Global Britain’—for the UK and the world—cannot be overstressed. That importance will gain traction and draw attention as Glasgow prepares to host COP26, perhaps, the most important event on the global calendar in the post-pandemic year. Britain has the capability to finance a rising nation’s transition to a green future; India and South Asia have the capacity to absorb green investments by Britain as it prepares to transit from the old to the new. Climate partnerships will prove to be the most resilient partnerships of the future, and Britain must know this and act accordingly. The City of London is a natural fit for this endeavour, but it is by no means the only candidate. An enlightened approach, including technology and access to it, can work to mutual and planetary benefit. It is for Britain to demonstrate that its approach is strategic rather than tactical. Released earlier this year, the ‘UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ is an excellent document. It needs to be put into action quickly.
The strategic importance of ‘Global Britain’—for the UK and the world—cannot be overstressed. That importance will gain traction and draw attention as Glasgow prepares to host COP26, perhaps, the most important event on the global calendar in the post-pandemic year
‘Global Britain’ should not mean Britain’s World. It should rather signify Britain with the world. Through effective engagement, backed by its very own Indo-Pacific strategy based on the twin principles of prosperity and security, it can help reinforce a “sustainable rules-based order in the region that is resilient but adaptable to the great power realities of the 21stcentury”. In all this, the centrality of India is beyond debate or doubt, which only serves to underscore that Britain should naturally invest in and with India. Yet, Britain comes into the contemporary Indo-Pacific as a latecomer, its historical role notwithstanding. It has to add value to the Quad template and India’s own evangelising of the Indo-Pacific; it cannot presume to be a leader by default or based on the past.