In early February, just after leaving the EU and before Britain was engulfed by COVID-19, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that his country was once again ready to make its mark on the world.
The UK was embarking on a “great voyage” to champion free trade, he said in a speech in London.
While not wishing to exaggerate British influence, he said not to downplay the “eagerness of our friends around the world to hear once again our independent voice.”
Illustration: Mountain People
Barely six months later, free trade is falling victim to protectionism as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages economies and sharpens geopolitical rivalries.
The British government is tangling with China over Hong Kong and with Russia over alleged meddling in elections, while sparring with the EU over the terms of their future ties.
In a world upturned, other powers view the UK as having lost influence, shorn of its EU membership and economically vulnerable, according to interviews with senior policymakers past and present from allies and rivals alike.
From India to Canada and Europe to China, the snapshot provided is one of skepticism of the UK’s bid to forge a foreign policy that is at once a projection of the country today and a reflection of its imperial past.
The danger is that the government in London has an inflated view of what it terms “Global Britain,” when for the rest of the world it’s just another country.
“The UK will find a world out there that is increasingly governed outright by mercantilism and power,” said Rob Davies, who served as South African minister of trade and industry for a decade until his retirement in May last year. “I am not sure it is going to be such an easy ride.”
The COVID-era already looks daunting. The UK has experienced a disproportionately high death rate from the virus and is staring at the deepest recession in at least a century.
However, for all its coronavirus failings, there is a case to be made that the UK has been more assertive in its foreign policy positions in the past six months than in the past six years.
On Hong Kong, it has offered a path to citizenship for as many as 3 million of the territory’s residents, while its banning of Huawei Technologies Co from its 5G networks — even if it was prompted by US pressure — puts the onus on European countries to follow suit.
The UK led the charge on Russia over its hacking of prospective virus vaccines and is against allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to be readmitted to the G7 as US President Donald Trump has suggested.
India, as an English-speaking market of 1.3 billion people, is eager to do business with the UK, which it views positively in contrast with the EU’s “preachy moralizing” and “heavily bureaucratic and protectionist” stance, said journalist Swapan Dasgupta, a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha, the Indian upper house of parliament.
Yet, while India “has the highest level of natural comfort” with the UK, it sees itself with the advantage, not the other way around, Dasgupta said.
That could allow it to gain access to expertise in fields such as technology and finance, and marry British research with Indian manufacturing skills, he added.
“Britain is going to be weak and vulnerable on many counts,” Dasgupta said. “Their vulnerability post-Brexit is precisely the reason India has an opportunity to strengthen ties with Britain. Especially with misgivings over China, this could be a great opportunity for India.”
Canada is another natural ally for the UK due to its shared history, language and culture.
While Canada is not among British priorities for a trade deal — they are with the EU, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan — it is part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the UK aims to join.
However, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a trade deal with the EU.
Protecting Canada’s market access to continental Europe would be a priority in any negotiations with Johnson’s government, said Mel Cappe, former Canadian high commissioner to the UK.
“If you’re a Canadian exporter, you don’t need access to Britain. You need access to the continent,” said Cappe, now a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance.
The UK’s most enduring alliance is with the US. While the Trump administration continues to stress the importance of the “special relationship,” it has shown no qualms about threatening Britain when it considers ideas the US opposes.
That was evident with the Huawei decision, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo having said in recent months that Britain risked losing some access to US intelligence if it partnered with the Chinese company.
With polls suggesting a change of leadership after November’s US presidential election, there is no guarantee that a trade deal that has been touted by Trump would remain a priority.
For the UK’s European partners, the danger is of Britain falling off the radar altogether. Brexit trade talks have become a sideshow as European leaders focused on agreeing on a huge economic support package to confront the fallout from the pandemic. A deal was struck in the early hours of Tuesday.
A study by Jana Puglierin and Ulrike Franke of the European Council on Foreign Relations found that EU policy toward the UK was considered among the bloc’s top five priorities by just one member state: Ireland.
Defense is one area where the UK punches above its weight on the global stage. The concern among some allies is that a strategic review of UK security and foreign policy shifts the country’s focus.
At a time of growing threats, the UK needs to devote its limited resources to core interests close to home, said Malcolm Chalmers, an adviser to the British Parliament Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy.
“We should be realistic,” he said.
Even Britain’s old sparring partner, France, is concerned when it looks across the English Channel at the post-Brexit landscape.
France sees in Brexit the loss of the one other European country with similar defense capabilities and with a similar worldview, a French military official said.
“I don’t know anyone in France’s military and intelligence establishment who’s happy about Brexit,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.
Regardless, the UK’s post-Brexit influence is being tested particularly through its clash with China.
Gao Zhikai (高志凱), a former Chinese diplomat and translator for former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), said that China tends to look at Britain “as a country of pragmatism,” yet Brexit is seen as a failure of leadership that revealed structural defects in the British model that have yet to be addressed.
“If Britain does not exercise in a timely manner wise leadership and if it allows its independent foreign policy be more and more eroded, Britain may drop from a first-tier country in the world into a second-tier country in Europe,” Gao said. “Few, if not none, will shed a tear if this happens, but be assured that China will continue to treat Britain as an equal, as it does with Fiji or Tonga.”
For Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative Party lawmaker and chair of the British Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the tensions with China are regrettable, but overdue.
He has long made the case for Britain to adopt a new overseas strategy, saying that it is more important to the nation’s future health and prosperity than at any time since World War II.
Today, that means standing with the likes of Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia and Japan to defend the international rules-based system over authoritarianism.
“What China is trying to do is to break the international order and to change it into a dependence modeled on Beijing — and that just doesn’t work for us,” Tugendhat said. “We’re only at the opening stages of a foreign policy that we’ve needed for a very long time.”
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