How Labour Can Reform, Rather Than Do Away With, the UK’s Indo-Pacific Tilt

Tilting the tilt: UK Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey speaks at RUSI on 7 February. Image: RUSI

In his recent speech at RUSI, UK Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey set out Labour’s outlook on defence policy. According to Healey, the ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ was not just a mistake, but a ‘serious flaw’ of the 2021 Integrated Review. Against the backdrop of a forthcoming refresh of the Review and a general election due by 2025, Labour has started to make the case for how it would approach matters differently. However, rather than dismiss the Tilt, Labour has an opportunity to build on the foundations laid by the current government.

Healey did not entirely dismiss the government’s Integrated Review (IR). The premise was correct: the UK needed a grand strategy post-Brexit, and state-based threats – including those presented by China – are rising. Weeks earlier, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy remarked that a Labour administration would build on the current government’s new commitment to the Indo-Pacific, which was about maintaining a serious, long-term strategic approach to the region.

However, speaking on defence policy, Healey characterised the Tilt as an unrealistic vanity project of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson under the banner of Global Britain, which failed to take into account partners and allies and squandered scarce UK defence resources at the expense of a strategy on European security. On China policy, Lammy promised a complete audit based on the ‘three Cs’ of challenge, compete and, where possible, cooperate – the latter referring to climate change, for example.

A healthy dose of realism, said Healey, was needed in defence policy towards the region. However, so far, there is very little to indicate what this might look like in practice. Where some indication has been given, closer examination shows there need not be as radical a rethink as is being suggested.

Rather than dismiss the Indo-Pacific Tilt, a future Labour government could propose a Tilt tailored to its priorities

On China policy, it is difficult to see how the ‘three Cs’ approach is fundamentally different from the approach to China set out in the IR. On the UK’s defence and security policy, the IR and accompanying Defence Command Paper (DCP) underscored that Russia was an acute threat to national security. The defence commitments to the Indo-Pacific were also comparatively modest, and many of these have already been achieved – the successful deployment of Carrier Strike Group 2021 (CSG21), the presence of two offshore patrol vessels in the region, the establishment of the Littoral Response Group South, a greater defence attaché network in the region, and the negotiation of reciprocal access agreements. Still to come is the deployment of Type 31 frigates by 2030 to, for instance, contribute to upholding freedom of navigation in the region.

These defence objectives are less about permanent and extensive deployments of hard power to the region, and more about defence diplomacy, capacity building, and defence industrial cooperation. Indeed, the DCP also sought to enhance engagement with partners such as Australia, Japan, India and South Korea, noting that closer partnerships with other countries – including in the Indo-Pacific – would further the UK’s interoperability and burden sharing across the world.

Rather than dismiss the Indo-Pacific Tilt, a future Labour government could propose a Tilt tailored to its priorities. Firstly, it should pledge to maintain the current commitment to the region in order to stabilise the UK’s approach. Healey’s statement that the UK should not be expected to deploy ‘much’ of its military to Japan or Australia indicates that this was the ambition of the Review, but as noted already, this does not seem to be supported by the existing DCP or IR in terms of the objectives they outlined. It is also worth noting that while geographical distance matters, the UK is not alone in redirecting some resources to distant shores. In fact, the Indo-Pacific strategies of France and Japan stretch from Africa’s eastern coast to the South Pacific, and in some cases the western coast of the Americas.

Partners in the region desire continued consistency in UK messaging that underscores a stable and comprehensive long-term approach

Secondly, rather than focus on the furthest geographical extents of the Indo-Pacific, the UK might consider focusing on and developing an Indian Ocean strategy, which could include Southeast Asia. The UK already has bases and assets stationed in the Gulf and East Africa, and a facility in Singapore. These could be used to build resilience in partner countries and the capacity to manage their own security; to help bolster maritime security in the region by linking this to the underappreciated opportunities that lie in the ‘blue economy’; and of course for humanitarian and disaster relief. The UK’s resources could also be used to ensure that freedom of navigation of this region’s vital maritime trade lifelines and sea lines of communication is maintained. With roughly equitable distances to it, the geographical location of the Indian Ocean provides greater opportunity for the UK to exercise and engage with key partners like Japan and Australia that are also active there, although this should not preclude deployments to partners in the region from time to time. Indeed, when the Royal Navy has been in the East China Sea, whether with an OPV or frigate as part of CSG21, it has played an active and important role in enforcing UN sanctions on North Korea.

Finally, given very real resource pressures, continuing to find creative ways to engage with Indo-Pacific and European powers to coordinate naval and air force deployments to the Pacific must remain at the heart of any future strategy. Not only would this reduce cost and deepen partnerships, but crucially, it would signal to actors like China and North Korea that stability and security in the region are of global interest.

These are not major upgrades to the UK’s current Tilt. They would not require any significant defence investment in the region, with the majority of resources rightly going to resupplying UK defence stocks and focusing primarily on the Euro-Atlantic region. Irrespective of what the IR refresh or any future Labour Indo-Pacific policy might look like, it is crucial to undertake an honest examination of current policy and to see how best to build upon it, rather than indicating a reversal of policy or leaving scope for actions to be potentially interpreted as such. Partners in the region desire continued consistency in UK messaging that underscores a stable and comprehensive long-term approach. Future statements by Labour on its foreign and defence policy towards the Indo-Pacific should use the opportunity to clarify and detail its approach to this dynamic region, in which the UK armed forces already play an important role.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Veerle Nouwens

External Author | Former RUSI Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific

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