Britain must stand with the Commonwealth against China

By Alexander Downer

and Lord Marland

Alexander Downer

Alexander Downer is a former Australian foreign minister and high commissioner to the UK

Lord Marland

Lord Marland is Chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, and was the prime minister’s trade envoy 2011-14

It has been more than 50 years since Britain exited the Indo-UK trade agreement. It was one of many bilateral Commonwealth deals the country relinquished in the early 1970s – along with her global ambitions, some would argue. For the UK, it was a necessary requirement for joining the regional European Common Market. For India, it meant losing the most tangible element of its post-war Commonwealth membership.

To those of us who see Britain’s future based on the reinvigoration of Commonwealth ties, today’s concerted effort to push a new India-UK free trade deal over the line is a welcome development. So too is the cross-party consensus on it, should agreement not be reached before the general election. This makes Britain’s direction of travel clear: a tilt to the east where global economic growth resides – and where much of the Commonwealth happens to be located.

Party-political agreement has not always been to Britain’s advantage. The established post-War view that Britain wasn’t what it used to be led to extraordinary decision-making. The flight to Europe and its trade protectionism and the trimming world-wide Commonwealth ties could both be seen through this prism: Britain could afford nothing more. Yet the statistics never supported the sentiment. In 1913 – when arguably at the zenith of its power – Britain’s economy was the 5th largest in the world. In 2023 it was 10th largest. Some decline.

Still, in the early 1970s, when the last trade deal with India was undone, there was some logic in looking to the Continent: it held an outsized share of global GDP. Today, when 85 per cent of the global economy is outside of Europe there is next to none.

As we mark this year’s Commonwealth Day, the shift eastward gathers pace: all the UK’s major post-Brexit Free Trade Agreements – with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the eleven-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – are in Asia. So too is the Aukus submarine agreement with Australia and the sixth-generation fighter jet programme with Japan. Later this year, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting will be held in Samoa in the South Pacific. All of this, by design, leads Britain into the heart of the twenty-first century’s economy – but also by necessity into its geopolitics. And that means China.

Perhaps as much as free trade deals, this country holds the key to the revival of the Commonwealth. The Chinese challenge is equally one of trade and governance. Countries in Asia, but increasingly elsewhere, are pulled into its orbit through debt. A loan becomes ballast for a government’s budget, then a lodestone on its geopolitical direction. It soon becomes a demand for a security presence. That in turn creates pro-Chinese and pro-western camps within a country’s political establishment.

Australia has been engaged in a geopolitical tug of war of containment for two decades over China’s bid for a security presence in the Pacific. But easy yet opaque Chinese debt, offering obvious temptations for politicians, has greatly enhanced China’s economic influence and security presence. It is a pattern that repeats again and again.

Through a revitalised Asian economic presence, it follows that Britain must prepare herself to engage more diplomatically. To misquote Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State under Truman, here “Britain can find a role”. By refocusing development, security, and governance efforts on supporting Commonwealth members, Britain can buttress those facing Chinese pressure. It makes sense to focus with near-exclusivity on Commonwealth countries. Ties of language, culture and diaspora makes British influence surest to revive.

Notwithstanding recent aid budget cuts, the UK remains the third-largest provider of aid in the world. Some of it should be calibrated towards re-establishing diplomatic and security relations with Commonwealth members to reinforce trading ties. It is more than possible to make the UK an additional and powerful force for liberal values both in governance and economics across Asia, at a time when additional weight is welcome in the west’s response to China’s rise.

Just as the disbandment of the last UK-India deal represented Britain’s shrinking ambitions, the signing of a new one will be a statement of its expansion. Whether it comes before or after the election, a new Asian and Commonwealth consensus is forming. That’s to the benefit of Britain, her allies, and the world.

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