The United Kingdom’s “Indo-Pacific Tilt”: What Does It Mean for Taiwan?

The United Kingdom’s “Indo-Pacific Tilt”: What Does It Mean for Taiwan?

The United Kingdom’s “Indo-Pacific Tilt”: What Does It Mean for Taiwan?

In March 2021, one year on from leaving the European Union, the British Government published “Global Britain in a Competitive Age,” its vision of the country’s role in the world over the next twenty years. Prominent in this is a clear shift of foreign policy and security priorities away from Europe and towards the Asia-Pacific region, in what is now commonly described as an “Indo-Pacific tilt.” 

In security terms, the new policy represents a near 180 degree change from the stance of the last 50 years, during which British commitments to the Indo-Pacific region have steadily declined as defence policy has been increasingly focused on Europe and the Atlantic. Although the country is a member of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA)—a series of bilateral agreements bringing together Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom—and maintains a battalion of troops in Brunei (paid for by the Sultan of Brunei), in times of financial difficulties in London there has been pressure to end even these residual commitments. [1]

That the new policy was drawn up with at least one eye on the domestic audience is clear from its stated aim of making the United Kingdom “the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific.” In this, it is part of the British government’s wider “Global Britain” policy, an attempt to convince its own electorate—if not the wider world—that in the aftermath of the country’s withdrawal from the EU, it is not turning in on itself. It may make for a catchy headline, but in the words of one former senior ambassador, as a strapline it is “more ingenious than persuasive.” [2]

In part, the “Indo-Pacific Tilt” reaffirms existing policy, such as the 2017 Defence Logistics Treaty with Japan, while also being a response to repeated urging by governments in the region, especially in Southeast Asia, to be more engaged. To some extent, however, the United Kingdom is simply playing “catch-up” with many of its erstwhile European partners: France, Germany, and the Netherlands had already published policies for their relations with the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, in recent years France has also had a significantly higher level of security engagement in the region than has the United Kingdom, including joint exercises and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). Undoubtedly the highest-profile—and most controversial—result of the new policy to date was the “AUKUS” tripartite agreement with the United States and Australia, under which the United States will help provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. But the policy has also seen the United Kingdom step up its defence engagement with Japan, and invite Australia, India, and South Korea to the G7 Summit it hosted in 2021. Notably, increased trade with the region also forms an important part of the strategy, so could Taiwan also expect to receive closer attention from the United Kingdom as part of the new approach?

There have already been some encouraging signs. The communiqué issued by the United Kingdom following the G7 Summit in Cornwall in June 2021 included for the first time an explicit mention of Taiwan. The increasing bilateral security cooperation with Japan should also help Taiwan indirectly, inasmuch as it will increase the United Kingdom’s security profile in the area. Finally, staff numbers in the British Office in Taipei are being increased to boost greater political and economic activity. 

So far, however, the new policy looks stronger on rhetoric than it does on substance, especially on long-term commitments. Stated key objectives are to enhance the FPDA, establish a permanent naval presence in the wider region, and join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which Taiwan also hopes to join. To these should be added its membership in the AUKUS agreement and the expanding defence collaboration with Japan, which now includes a Reciprocal Access Agreement to facilitate joint exercises and training. 

Largely absent from these objectives, however, are specific commitments, especially beyond the short term. In terms of ships, the Royal Navy is already smaller than it has been at any time since probably the 17th century, yet economic constraints and high budget deficits are putting its spending plans at risk. Questions inevitably arise therefore over its ability to maintain anything more than a token presence in the Indo-Pacific, certainly over the long term. When the United Kingdom’s new flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth made its maiden operational deployment to East Asia in 2021, Dutch and American naval vessels formed part of its escort group. It is doubtful whether politicians in London fully appreciate just how large a portion of the globe the “Indo-Pacific region” covers, but a token naval presence, even if permanent, would hardly be in a position to deploy quickly to the South China Sea if, say, it was patrolling at the time off the Horn of Africa. 

The trade elements of the new strategy also look thin, beyond the stated aim of joining the CPTPP, which is hardly compensation for British exporters for the loss of easy access to the EU market.  

From Taiwan’s perspective, fundamental to the new approach is that British attitudes towards China have changed markedly since the proclamation of a “golden decade” in 2015. Nevertheless, the British government remains wary of provoking China. So, when HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed to East Asia, although it passed through the South China Sea in a FONOPs exercise, it carefully avoided the Taiwan Strait, sailing instead to the east of the country on its way to Japan. Historically too, the United Kingdom has consistently taken a more cautious attitude towards defence sales to Taiwan than many of its European neighbours. In 2015, for example, the government in London asked British defence companies not to pursue a contract with Taiwan for mine counter-measures vessels, and the contract was awarded instead to an Italian company. [3] (The project was suspended in 2017 after the main Taiwanese contractor became involved in a legal case.) 

And while British politicians have regularly declared their support for Taiwan, they have been reluctant to back this up with concrete action. To date, the government has been silent on Taiwan’s application to join the CPTPP, nor has it responded to Taiwanese overtures for discussing a bilateral trade or investment agreement. Yet, for Taiwan a far bigger prize would be an agreement with the EU: while its bilateral trade with the United Kingdom is not insignificant, it is less than one-third that with just the Netherlands within the EU. The UK government has also refused to give even a modicum of formal status to Taiwan’s representative offices in the United Kingdom. This latter point might seem of only symbolic importance to British officials, but this ignores the important psychological impact it would have for Taiwan. Visits to Taiwan by British ministers also continue to be few and far between, even though these would be an easy, low-cost way of demonstrating support. 

Taiwan should not write off the “Indo-Pacific Tilt” as irrelevant, however.  Two analysts have argued that Britain’s engagement in the region around the Taiwan Strait has increased since 2018, in response both to its evolving security alliance with Japan and its trilateral security arrangements with Japan and the United States. [4] To this should be added the AUKUS agreement. Taken together, all of these agreements serve to push back against Chinese hegemonic ambitions and thereby serve Taiwan’s interests. 

Furthermore, while the United Kingdom may remain reluctant to discuss, let alone negotiate, high profile bilateral agreements with Taiwan, it has been ready to conclude more modest, targeted agreements, such as on pork exports (2018) or the transfer of prisoners (2016). While these may lack the impact of broader agreements, they are nonetheless welcome to Taiwan. It should seek opportunities to negotiate additional agreements, while continuing to work with British think tanks to understand more fully Britain’s defence policy, and to seek ways to influence it. 

The main point: Against a backdrop of political uncertainty, budgetary constraints, and innate British caution, the “Indo-Pacific Tilt” is likely to remain more soundbite than substance. But it still offers modest benefits for Taiwan, which the latter should seek to exploit.

[1] Michael Reilly, The Great Free Trade Myth, British Foreign Policy and East Asia since 1980 (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 22.

[2] Michael Reilly and Chun-Yi Lee, eds., A New Beginning or More of the Same? The European Union and East Asia after Brexit (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 2.

[3] Michael Reilly, Towards and EU-Taiwan Investment Agreement, Prospects and Pitfalls, (Palgrave Pivot, 2018), 26.

[4] Corey Lee Bell and Andrew Yang, “The Impact of Brexit on East Asian Security: A Taiwanese Perspective” in A New Beginning or More of the Same?, eds. Michael Reilly and Chun-Yi Lee, (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 155 et. Seq.