After Brexit, Rishi Sunak wants to steer Britain along a new path. He has the Indo-Pacific in his sights since it is a place that is dear to his heart.
Prior to his first significant overseas trip as prime minister to the G20 conference in Bali, Sunak was a leader without a foreign policy after a swift ascent to office this fall.
Sunak, though, enthusiastically endorsed proposals for an Indo-Pacific "tilt" in Britain's post-Brexit global policy during a whirlwind round of tropical diplomacy this week.
Following Britain's exit from the EU, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss were the first to advocate for it, but Sunak's admirers feel he is much better equipped than any of his predecessors to implement it.
An assistant to the prime minister predicted that "The boss will be brilliant in Southeast Asia. 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."
Both of Sunak's parents are of Indian descent and arrived in the United Kingdom in the 1960s via southeast Africa. He is the first prime minister who is of Asian descent.
The same Sunak ally stated that "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."
According to senior people acquainted with his thinking, Britain's policy would involve forging better ties with Asia's emerging economies, particularly this year's G20 host Indonesia, who are allied neither with the West nor with Russia or China. The U.K. wants to have the biggest footprint of any nation in the area.
According to a person involved in the talks, Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia and host of the G20 conference, will be called to London for talks in mid-December. He might even be given the chance to speak with King Charles.
More Indo-Pacific participation is desired for pragmatic reasons as well as ideological ones. Because of Brexit, Britain's closest trading partner, the EU, has loosened economic relations, forcing the U.K. government to search elsewhere.
Securing U.K. membership in the trading bloc known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will be a key component of this strategy. Sunak deliberately scheduled bilateral meetings at the G20 with CPTPP participants like Japan, Canada, and Australia.
A No. 10 adviser claims that he has developed a close relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Japan is significant because it is the group's chair and will decide whether the U.K. will join the CPTPP.
Officials continue to state that the U.K. intends to wrap up its accession negotiations this year, but in reality, no agreement is likely to be reached until early 2023 at the earliest given the U.K.'s adamant demand for flexibility over the EU's regulations and standards.
But the September application from China to join has made things more difficult. In order to allow the U.K. to join the bloc more swiftly, current CPTPP members are reportedly refusing to "dumb down" the standards on several sectors, including agriculture, out of concern that doing so might create a precedent that China could use as leverage in its own accession negotiations.
Damien O'Connor, the trade minister for New Zealand, expressed his optimism that the U.K. will soon join CPTPP but cautioned Britain "oes have to meet the standards laid by not just New Zealand but all CPTPP members". As more countries join, he continued, "We’re not prepared to dumb down or reduce any of the standards or opportunities in that trade agreement."
Since the beginning of September, Britain has had three prime ministers, and the CPTPP members are growing increasingly irritated with the country's persistent political unrest. According to a representative of one of the members, Sunak must first soothe the political unrest over the next months before attempting to win over Tory MPs who are already uneasy about the potential negative effects of trade agreements on British farmers.
Nigel Huddleston, the trade minister for the United Kingdom, stated that the country "continues to make good progress" toward CPTPP membership, "having demonstrated to members of the partnership that we are a high-standards, fair trading economy."
The advantages for Britain are obvious, according to Richard Graham, the newly reappointed trade envoy for Southeast Asia for the United Kingdom. "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 ."
At least one important shift from Sunak's immediate predecessor has been made to British foreign policy.
When compared to Truss, who saw the Indo-Pacific tilt as an opportunity to trade with other liberal democracies in the region, Sunak is more realistic, especially when it comes to China, the largest economy in Asia.
On the fringes of the G20 summit on Wednesday, he was scheduled to hold unexpected bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but those preparations rapidly fell apart.
The meeting was called off at the last minute due to schedule conflicts brought on by the necessity for international leaders to react to a missile strike in Poland. Sunak would have been the first British prime minister to meet Xi in almost five years.
But after years of deterioration due to Beijing's restrictions on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, its persecution of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, and worries about national security, Sunak's decision to seek face-to-face talks was the first step towards better relations between the two countries.
During his leadership campaign over the summer, when he attempted—failed miserably—to outmaneuver the more hawkish Truss on foreign policy in a desperate appeal to the Tory grassroots, the prime minister carefully toned down the tough language he employed on China.
He criticized "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" at the time, calling China "the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century."
According to insiders, his return to a more accommodative stance exposes his lack of conviction on the issue. One representative of the U.K. government 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 ."
However, Sunak contends that communication with China is crucial to resolving international problems like the conflict in Ukraine, energy security, climate change, and public health, and he would have used the meeting to invite Xi to closer ties on those matters. He still looks forward to seeing the Chinese leader.
Theresa May, who visited Xi in the beginning of 2018, did so at a time when Downing Street was still alluding to the "golden era" in relations that David Cameron had inaugurated.
Sunak will not go that far, in part because backbench Conservative MPs will not allow it. He will also need to strike a balance between his relations with Beijing and India, which is concerned of China's rise.
But it is obvious now that Sunak has made his first significant impression on the world stage that the U.K. prime minister views Asia as a golden opportunity to seize.
By fLEXI tEAM