My country, Britain, faces a self-imposed difficulty. It chose, in a referendum in 2016, to leave the 28-country block of the European Union, of which it had by then been a member for 43 years. It therefore decided to bring to an end the central element of both its foreign policy and its international trade policy during those four decades: those elements were its strategy of pursuing its interests in world affairs in partnership with other European nations, and of building and deepening its international trade chiefly with its neighbouring countries. So its difficulty is simple: what new strategy should replace this powerful, neighbourhood-centred strategy?
Four years later, we British citizens are still waiting to learn what our government's answer will be to this question. But this doesn't just affect our medium-sized nation. The big non-European countries that we have especially close ties with, which means principally the United States and Japan, are also waiting to find out. And it is also clear that in trying to find its answer, Britain is looking to Japan for inspiration.
It certainly needs some. Leaving the European Union was a negative act: a rejection of something. The decision did not come with a positive plan. The single slogan that has emerged for the U.K.'s future is the idea that the country aspires to be "Global Britain", but this is a hope, not a strategy. Many countries see their interests and activities as being global. Indeed, many members of the European Union believe that through that membership they are more able to pursue global interests, because they do so with the collective strength of a block consisting of 445 million people and a combined GDP that at $18 trillion is second in the world behind the United States.
Yet the intention of this article is not to argue with the choice made by Britain in 2016. It is to explore the question of how in the 21st century a country such as Britain, one that has decided to act largely alone, should think about its foreign and trade policies. As the weight of Asia in world politics, economic output and trade has increased so dramatically in recent decades, this inevitably is substantially a question of what kind of approach a country like Britain can and should take towards Asia.
So far, there have been two clues in British government policy: first, the fact that it has declared an official intention to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, better known just as the TPP; and second, in a lengthy official paper described as an "integrated review" of foreign and defence policies, published on March 16, the U.K. said it plans a "tilt to the Indo-Pacific".
Japan has spoken in support of the first of these aspirations. But it has also pointed out that in order to join the TPP, Britain will have to sign up to rules in some areas of commercial activity that it proved unable to do when negotiating its bilateral Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan last year. So it is not likely to be straightforward. Yet let us ask the more basic question: why should Britain, a country located on the westernmost coast of Europe, wish to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a grouping of 11 countries on the other side of the world? Why indeed, should such a far-away country wish to "tilt" to the Indo-Pacific?
The answer on TPP cannot be because Britain expects significant economic advantages from doing so. Even the most optimistic analysis does not forecast more than a tiny increase in British trade as a result of joining the TPP. Rather, the motive has to be political. First, because joining the TPP would be a symbol of Britain's global aspirations. But second, and more important, because it would put Britain at the table whenever the 11 TPP countries, led by Japan and Australia, get together to discuss trade and investment rules or seek to agree a common position in talks at the World Trade Organisation.
Britain's voice in the TPP would be small. Even in the modern world of trade in services and data, distance matters. Countries within the Asia-Pacific will continue to be far more integrated with one another, economically, than they will be with the U.K. Even so, it makes sense to have a voice in this organisation, but probably many others too. Britain's strategy looks like being one of replacing one overwhelming organisational allegiance -- to the EU -- with allegiances to many entities, all over the world.
This is not so different from Japan's situation. There is no Asian equivalent to the European Union. Rather, Japan is a participant in all sorts of Asian groups, from the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, to the East Asia Summit, to TPP to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Moreover, it has forged bilateral trade agreements with the EU as well as the U.K., and many other countries around the globe. It does have one dominant relationship: its security alliance with the United States. But Japanese strategy for at least the past decade, and in many ways far longer, has been to seek to move beyond that dominant U.S. focus to gain more autonomy and a greater variety of points of influence and contact.
Britain looks like it will have to do something similar. It, too, has a close security relationship with the United States, but one that is less bilateral since it operates through NATO, the multi-country North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Alongside its bid to join TPP we can expect Britain to try to gain a seat at many other tables, too. After the initial rancour of Brexit has cooled, it will need to seek new ways to connect with its European neighbours. But also, as the declared "tilt" shows, some of the other tables it will seek to join will be in Asia.
The British government is likely to have looked at the March 12 meeting between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, known as "the Quad", with envy. Britain would, it is clear, very much like to be invited to join or at least to gain a close relationship with this four-country grouping of democracies. Britain's prime minister, Boris Johnson, plans to visit India next month. It would not be at all surprising if Britain were to offer to participate in and contribute funds for the Quad's announced plan to jointly manufacture and deliver 1 billion vaccine doses in Southeast Asia and elsewhere during 2022.
Of course, not being a country in the Indo-Pacific means that Britain would be hard-pressed to persuade America and the others to invite it to join, tilt or not. Even so, it is sending its newest aircraft carrier to Asia this year, to participate in exercises and in Freedom of Navigation Operations. It clearly wants to show that it can play a part even in Asian security. In truth, the part it can play will always be small. Nevertheless, this is Britain's future: to spread its friendships as wide as it can, even if the spread is really quite thin.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)