Labour should encourage Britain’s Indo-Pacific ambitions

Ben Bland is the director of the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House.

As the United Kingdom’s opposition Labour Party senses that it is getting closer to power, it is following a seemingly contradictory strategy: intensifying its polemical attacks on the Conservatives, while also ensuring its own policies hew closely to the Tories to neutralize any claims that leader Keir Starmer is a dangerous radical.

This may well prove to be sound electoral triangulation, but when it comes to foreign policy and Britain’s uncertain place in a fast-changing world, Labour needs to be thinking beyond such electoral tactics.

Along these lines, Starmer and Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy have already indicated that, if elected, Labour will maintain support for Ukraine and work along Tory lines to improve the post-Brexit relationship with the European Union. However, the party seems unconvinced by the Conservative government’s Indo-Pacific tilt — and this needs to change.

For the past year, both Lammy and Shadow Defense Secretary John Healey have attacked the Conservative government’s push for deeper engagement in the region, suggesting it is designed to sideline ties with Europe. But this is a false dichotomy.

The U.K.’s long-term security and prosperity will require better relations with both the EU and key Asian partners. Moreover, the European bloc is itself increasingly focused on opportunities in the Indo-Pacific and, in fact, wants to better coordinate its efforts there with the U.K.

And although the Conservative government initially framed this tilt as a competitive pitch against European engagement in the region, it has dropped this rhetoric as the United States, Japan and other allies have deepened their own policy cooperation on China and the region as a whole.

Labour will, of course, continue taking potshots at Tory foreign policy but, as the election looms larger, it also needs to think more seriously about how it can build on the government’s advances in Asia.

On the diplomatic front, in 2021 the U.K. secured dialogue partner status with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — an important regional bloc anchoring the trade and security architecture of much of Asia.

On the trade front, in July Britain joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — a trading bloc comprised of 11 countries in Asia and the Pacific, including Japan, Singapore and Vietnam.

And on the security front, the country is now working with the U.S. and Australia on the AUKUS partnership, which will eventually see Australia acquire and deploy nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific, as well as promote cooperation in emerging military technologies.

On their own, none of these developments are transformative. But taken together, they provide a strong foundation for future British governments to expand the range and depth of their relationships with regional partners.

Acknowledging that the U.K. must respond as the global balance of economic and political power shifts eastward, in recent comments, Lammy seems to have warmed to the idea of heightened Indo-Pacific engagement. But Labour needs to develop its own Indo-Pacific approach with its own characteristics.

Labour needs to develop its own Indo-Pacific approach with its own characteristics | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The new dialogue partnership with ASEAN, for example, could present a good opportunity for a Labour government to demonstrate its commitment to multilateralism and development. To actually do so, however, would require increased budget allocations for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Labour could also use the CPTPP as the basis for a renewed bid to expand the U.K.’s trade and investment in Asia’s fast-growing markets, as well as highlight Britain’s fealty to stable and transparent global trade rules.

And when it comes to China, any future Labour government will need to confront the uncomfortable truth that simultaneously cooperating and competing with Beijing is much easier said than done. As an emerging great power challenging the existing U.S.-led order, China has incentive to disrupt rather than cooperate.

So, beyond scoffing at Conservative flip-flops over China, Labour should use its time in opposition to consider what exactly the ultimate endgame for the U.K.’s China policy would be. What kind of global role for China should the U.K. accept? What price is Britain willing to pay to “de-risk” its economy from China? And how far should it follow Washington’s ever tougher approach?

There are no easy answers here, especially in these straitened financial times. But there are many important questions Labour should be asking itself as it contemplates returning to power.

Foreign policy is almost never a vote winner in elections. But a serious plan expanding the U.K.’s role in this dynamic region would align with Labour ideals, while promoting British prosperity and helping build a fairer, safer world.

And that is more powerful than scoring cheap political points against the Tories.