Ben Bland is the director of Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific Program.
As the opposition UK Labor Party feels it is moving closer to power, it is following a seemingly contradictory strategy: stepping up its controversial attacks on the Conservatives, while ensuring that its own policies closely align with the Conservatives to neutralize any claim that leader Keir Starmer is a dangerous radical.
This may well be sensible electoral triangulation, but when it comes to foreign policy and Britain’s uncertain place in a rapidly changing world, Labor must think beyond such electoral tactics.
Along these lines, Starmer and Labor Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy have already indicated that, if elected, Labor will maintain its support for Ukraine and work along Conservative lines to improve the post-Brexit relationship. with the European Union. However, the party does not seem convinced of the Conservative government’s bias towards the Indo-Pacific, and this needs to change.
Over the past year, both Lammy and Shadow Defense Secretary John Healey have attacked Conservative government pressure for deeper engagement in the region, suggesting it is designed to sideline ties with Europe. But this is a false dichotomy.
The UK’s long-term security and prosperity will require better relations with both the EU and key Asian partners. Furthermore, the European bloc itself is increasingly focused on the opportunities in the Indo-Pacific and indeed wants to better coordinate its efforts there with the UK.
And while the Conservative government initially framed this tilt as a competing argument against European engagement in the region, it has abandoned this rhetoric as the United States, Japan and other allies have deepened their own political cooperation with China and the region as a whole.
Labor will, of course, continue to attack Conservative foreign policy, but as the election approaches they also need to think more seriously about how they can capitalize on the government’s gains in Asia.
On the diplomatic front, in 2021 tThe UK was granted dialogue partner status with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – a major regional bloc that underpins the trade and security architecture of much of Asia.
On the commercial front, in July Great Britain joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – a trading bloc made up of 11 Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan, Singapore and Vietnam.
And on the security front, the country is now working with the US and Australia in the AUKUS partnershipwhich will eventually see Australia acquire and deploy nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific, as well as promote cooperation on emerging military technologies.
By themselves, none of these advances is transformative. But taken together, they provide a solid foundation for future British governments to broaden the scope and depth of their relationships with regional partners.
Recognizing that the UK must respond as the global balance of economic and political power shifts east, Lammy in recent comments seems to have warmed to the idea of further engagement in the Indo-Pacific. But the Labor Party needs to develop its own approach in the Indo-Pacific with its own characteristics.
The new dialogue partnership with ASEAN, for example, could present a good opportunity for a Labor government to demonstrate its commitment to multilateralism and development. However, to actually achieve this would require increased budget allocations for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Labor could also use the CPTPP as the basis for a renewed attempt to expand UK trade and investment in Asia’s fast-growing markets, as well as highlight Britain’s allegiance to stable and transparent global trade rules.
And when it comes to China, any future Labor government will have to face the uncomfortable truth that cooperating and competing with Beijing at the same time is much easier said than done. As an emerging great power challenging the existing US-led order, China has incentives to disrupt rather than cooperate.
So, beyond mocking the Conservatives’ sweeping changes on China, Labor should use its time in opposition to consider exactly what the end of UK China policy would be. What kind of global role for China should the UK accept? What price is Britain willing to pay to “de-risk” its economy from China? And to what extent should he follow Washington’s increasingly tough approach?
There are no easy answers here, especially in these difficult financial times. But there are many important questions that Labor should ask itself as it contemplates a return to power.
Foreign policy almost never wins votes in elections. But a serious plan to expand the UK’s role in this dynamic region would align with Labor ideals, while promoting British prosperity and helping to build a fairer and more secure world.
And that’s more powerful than scoring cheap political points against the Tories.