Leo Keay works as a Parliamentary Researcher and has an MA in International Security.
As the Government prepares to publish the Integrated Review (IR) refresh, many have questioned whether the “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” should remain a priority of our national security strategy. The war in Ukraine has stoked the belief that NATO and the Euro-Atlantic should be our prime focus, and that establishing ourselves as “the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific” is a chimera.
As John Healey told RUSI last week, “British Armed Forces are ill-served by leaders pretending they can do everything, everywhere….Just as we would not expect Japan or Australia to deploy much of their military to Europe, nor does it make sense – especially at this moment – for UK forces to devote an increasing share of their scarce resources to the Indo-Pacific.”
Such arguments are both reductionist and isolationist. Yes, the return of land warfare to continental Europe undeniably represents an existential challenge. But that does not diminish the Indo-Pacific’s centrality to our prosperity and security. In reality, the tilt is more important than ever: greater engagement with the region offers opportunities to strengthen ourselves against Russia in the Euro-Atlantic.
The tilt’s main rationale is economic rather than military. Accounting for 40 per cent of global GDP and 17.5 per cent of UK global trade, the Indo-Pacific is vital to our prosperity. Through a combination of bilateral trade deals and multilateral partnerships, the UK aims both to diversify its trade and strengthen the resilience of its supply chains.
For example, UK trade with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership was worth £111 billion in 2019, growing by 8 per cent a year since 2016. Membership of the block would create new opportunities in the digital, data, and services sectors, as well as cutting tariffs for our food, drink and automotive industries.
Consequently, the tilt offers major economic benefits without imposing onerous military commitments. The UK’s priority is to keep trade routes open by upholding freedom of navigation and maintaining our existing network of bases in the region. Aside from the deployment of an amphibious Littoral Response Group at Duqm, Oman, along with two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) and one frigate, we are not devoting any new assets or resources to the region.
It is therefore absurd to suggest that this would overstretch our armed forces: redeploying 40 commandos and a handful of ships to the Indo-Pacific will not compromise our ability to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
Furthermore, the geopolitical significance of the region cannot be overestimated. The war in Ukraine has done nothing to abate China’s military modernisation and growing international assertiveness. If anything, Beijing will be emboldened now that Washington and its allies are embroiled in a proxy war against Moscow. The situation in Taiwan is particularly concerning: US Air Mobility Command’s Gen. Mike Minihan recently predicted that China could move against the island as early as 2025, potentially triggering war with the United States.
It is therefore vital that the UK plays its part in stabilising the region and deterring Chinese aggression. This can be achieved by sustaining strong multilateral partnerships in the region, such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore, as well as by fostering close bilateral ties with key security actors.
Our relationship with Japan will prove especially consequential: following this year’s Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), we will both be able to deploy forces in one another’s countries, allowing us to plan and conduct larger, more complex military exercises and deployments.
The Indo-Pacific is not only significant in its own right, it also has a direct bearing on our ability to counter Russian aggression in Europe. The region’s economic heft makes it integral to the global sanctions regime on Moscow. Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Australia have already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on individuals and entities associated with the Kremlin. Moreover, both Tokyo and Canberra have proven strong supporters of the G7 price cap on Russian crude oil.
The Indo-Pacific is equally vital to our defence industrial capacity. We have already concluded a number of partnerships that place us at the cutting edge of technological innovation. AUKUS promises not only to provide Canberra with the next generation of nuclear-powered submarines but also comprises joint US-UK-Australian collaboration to develop hypersonic, quantum, AI, and electronic warfare capabilities.
Similarly, our agreement with Rome and Tokyo to pool funding and expertise for the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) will help us to develop the next generation of fighter jets by 2035, equipped with capabilities such as uncrewed aircraft, sensors, weapons, and advanced data systems.
There is scope for further collaboration in the field of ammunition and arms procurement. France and Australia’s recent agreement to jointly manufacture shells for Ukraine offers an instructive precedent for how we could replenish our own rapidly depleting ammunition stockpiles. Moreover, Poland’s decision to purchase hundreds of tanks and howitzers from South Korea demonstrates the potential for the Indo-Pacific to provide heavy armour in light of the Leopard 2 debacle.
Finally – and most fundamentally of all – there is the question of nuclear weapons. Despite their reluctance to join the West in condemning Russia’s invasion, both China and India have discouraged Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling and pressured him not to deploy tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Ukraine.
New Delhi and Beijing agree that breaking the nuclear taboo would prove catastrophic for international security: it would not only set a precedent for escalation between nuclear Powers, but it could also unleash a wave of proliferation as non-nuclear states would scramble to develop their own arsenals.
The war in Ukraine has made the Indo-Pacific tilt more important than ever. Not only is the region vital to prosperity and security in its own right, it also has a direct bearing on sanctions, defence industrial capacity, and nuclear deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic. Engaging with the Indo-Pacific is vital to preserving a free and open international order: ignoring it would leave us vulnerable to authoritarianism and imperial aggression.