The term 'Indo-Pacific' first came into practical use by the British Government in the 1960s during the height of the empire's process of decolonisation. As a strategy, it sought to conceive what the UK's position within the region would be as the country gradually withdrew its influence there. The structural constraints of the Cold War—which had made imperialism an unpopular concept and established an imperative to contain the Soviet Union's attempts to encroach into the European continent—had forced the UK to relocate its national interests away from the East of Suez to the traditional European balance of power. The original Indo-Pacific strategy was therefore a plan to carefully reduce Britain's role in the region so that it could concentrate its efforts against the more immediate threat the Soviet Union was posing in Europe.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union however, the world's focus towards European security has gradually rescinded. Now that Britain has left the European Union (EU), a rethinking of its foreign policy goals is required, especially as world affairs 'pivot east'. Whilst Russia continues to be an explicit threat to European and British security—through events such as the annexation of Crimea and the poisonings of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal—its sphere of risk is less widespread than that of another Asiatic power, the People's Republic of China.
China's exceptional transition from an isolated command economy to a nation that took advantage of global economic trading has propelled it to a world power that surpassed the Soviet Union in terms of wealth. At the same time, it has filled the vacuum of power that was once inhabited by the Soviet Union as a hegemonic challenger against the United States (US). Contrary to Soviet security concerns that were mostly situated in the west of its borders, China's contemporary national interests are positioned within the east and transcend into the Indo-Pacific region—its 'nine-dash line' within the South China Sea being one of its most unwelcoming for global security.
Different Visions of the Indo-Pacific
The new challenges posed by China in the region has thus revived the idea of an Indo-Pacific strategy for several individual nations that are involved in the region, albeit having separate visions as to what the strategy should be. India—whose 'Look East' policy mostly considered the economic elements of its relationship with China—has now adopted an 'Act East' policy that consists of evasive balancing and a more strategic approach towards Chinese expansion.
Australia is following a separate, albeit similar, approach. The Turnbull Liberal-National government's 2017 white paper made clear that China's growing power (suggesting that it may have surpassed the US in the region in terms of influence) would raise new economic and strategic challenges for Australia and its fellow Indo-Pacific nations, simultaneously reaffirming the importance of Australia's alliance with the US.
Japan's strategy is more ambivalent, even whilst it explicitly wishes to implement its own three pillars of a 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific'. Though it has been assumed that Japan seeks to push back China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through cooperation with the EU as a result of increasing Sino-American tensions, the goals of its own Indo-Pacific strategy has also been interpreted as an attempt to reiterate the growing relations between China and Japan to compensate for the latter's declining relationship with South Korea, as well as to emphasise its own strategic autonomy. But despite this, the historical disputes that have interrupted developments in Sino-Japanese relations cannot be ignored, especially as relations could go in any direction as anti-Chinese attitudes re-amplify because of the COVID-19 epidemic.
The strategies of each country are therefore at different stages yet parallel to each other in the direction they take. A combination between the new international structure developed after the Cold War and the decisions taken by China as a rising superpower has shifted the focus of geopolitics to the Indo-Pacific. But unlike the Cold War—which stood in the middle of Britain's European backyard—the Indo-Pacific's tensions are on the opposite side of the globe.
Devising an Indo-Pacific Strategy for the UK
Whilst the US explicitly includes the UK within its own Indo-Pacific strategy, the UK cannot be as active as the regional powers due to its geography. However, this has not prevented other external powers from formulating their own Indo-Pacific strategies, including France and Germany. The UK does have a 'strategic array' of military facilities that are spread across the region, but nevertheless is perceived as having few immediate interests there due to a lack of a contemporary vision and a raison d'etre for its own Indo-Pacific strategy. To cooperate most efficiently with the Indo-Pacific nations directly involved, a revision of the UK's outdated strategy is necessary.
The limitations for the UK require it to consider new methods of statecraft for it to play a role in this new geopolitical stage of affairs. One is through its own unique status as an external actor to the region. Because its concerns for the region are not immediate, what concerns it does show are voluntary and therefore possess both moral and strategic aims—an example being the UK's offer to extend citizenship to three million Hong Kong residents. However, the UK cannot succeed in its efforts to contain Chinese aggrandisement alone, so it must consider the use of offshore balancing.
'Offshore balancing' is a relatively new term in international relations (IR) like 'Indo-Pacific', though its practice has been utilised by the UK in the past through its historical role as Europe's mediator. Definitions of it vary, ranging from directing 'power and influence toward maintaining a balance of power in key strategic regions of the world' to a power seeking only to 'encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary'. In recent discourse, it has been advocated by some IR theorists for the US to pursue. This is due to the belief that the US should limit its resources whilst still fulfilling its international obligations. On the contrary, British foreign policy has received little application of the term.
Both definitions of offshore balancing would be suitable for the UK to conceive an Indo-Pacific strategy—the first emphasising the need to concentrate national interests in specific areas which are highly vulnerable; the second recognising the limitations there are in deploying forces excessively by one power alone. It applies even more to the UK than it does to the US, especially with the former being an external power and the latter still maintaining a military expenditure that is more than the next ten countries combined, including the UK. American defence spending also increased substantially from 2018 to 2019 relative to other countries. The US's separate set of abilities—along with the aims in its own Indo-Pacific strategy and its explicit support from other Indo-Pacific nations such as Australia—makes the concept of offshore balancing less applicable to the hegemon than it does to the UK. The UK's strategic array of military facilities in the Indo-Pacific can thus act as an auxiliary to the regional powers' own capabilities if needed.
The UK's exit from the EU signifies a partial retreat of British interests from the European mainland, but it also serves as an opportunity for the nation to recognise and engage in the geopolitical challenges found outside of the Euro-Atlantic region. The Indo-Pacific is now the forefront of a power struggle instigated by China, one comparable to the division of Europe during the Cold War. In addition to this, the geopolitical and economic challenges for both sides of the Eurasian continent have become more alike due to the BRI's influence penetrating into both Europe and Asia. As a result, each region's security concerns towards China become increasingly interchangeable, and may lead to a 'Euro-Pacific' concept. Concerns for the Indo-Pacific's security thus align with European national interests and—at the same time—shows Britain's role and interests residing in both western and eastern spheres of security through a focus on the latter.
The UK must therefore renew its Indo-Pacific strategy for the post-Brexit era, converting it from being one of retreat into an explicit strategy that supports a free and open area that regional powers—such as India, Australia, Japan, and the US—advocate and participate in. Whilst not dependent on British support, each regional power's ability to deter against Chinese attempts at aggrandisement that threatens this concept would be less secure if the UK did not also concentrate its national interests in the region. It would also be a disservice to the British Government's proclamation of pursuing a 'Global Britain' and make the UK's foreign policy ambivalent—just like its current absence of an Indo-Pacific strategy. Conceiving a British Indo-Pacific strategy is now more appropriate than ever before.