Why the UK’s Middle East Policy Is Key to Britain’s ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’

Global Challenges

Why the UK’s Middle East Policy Is Key to Britain’s ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’

Posted on: 18th March 2021
Daniel Rey

With the publication of the UK’s Integrated Review of security and defence, Britain makes a first attempt to define an Indo-Pacific strategy. While being light on priorities, the 114-page Integrated Review includes the aspiration to be “the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific”. In this, the UK will face competition from the EU – the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, has already outlined an EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific and this comes off the back of French president Emmanuel Macron’s call to turn the EU into a geopolitical actor. This adds to the imperative for the UK to now define its priorities in the Indo-Pacific and leverage its unique capabilities. A good start would be integrating a strategy for the Middle East into the Indo-Pacific “tilt”.

Why the tilt to the Indo-Pacific?

The UK’s Integrated Review of security and defence has been lauded as a turning point in Britain’s relations with the world. The vision is to fashion a “Global Britain” of increased trade with emerging Asian economies while concentrating foreign policy on a new era of great power competition, defined by a resurgent Russia and a rising China. The underlying message is that Britain needs to find a competitive edge to hold its weight as a middle power in a multipolar world – building prosperity through new trade links while maintaining sovereignty to counterbalance competing superpowers and technology giants.

To achieve this, the government has struck a balanced approach, recommitting to key elements of post-war UK foreign policy while responding to new technologies and a global economy that is shifting eastward. On the geopolitical front, the report reaffirms a Euro-Atlanticist outlook that holds the US as the most important bilateral relationship and Europe as the key partner for security and prosperity. Beyond this, it marks an important step in revitalising British strategic thinking.

The “Indo-Pacific tilt” specifically reflects both a hope for future trade opportunities in a region representing 40 per cent of global GDP, and fears associated with growing competition between the US and China and potential threats to critical waterways in the Indo-Pacific.

For the aspiration of new trade, the review offers the modest proposal of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which accounted for only 8.4 per cent of UK exports in 2019. On the challenge of a rising China, it provides a nuanced solution that acknowledges the “systemic challenge” posed by Beijing while highlighting the need for cooperation and trade. The “Indo-Pacific tilt” also implies a break with the recent past, moving away from a focus on Middle East conflicts and nonstate terrorist groups to an emphasis on the economic opportunities of Asia and threats from nation-states.

The notion of the “Indo-Pacific” is not new. The term as a strategic concept dates to at least 2007, when Indian naval thinker, Gupreet S Khurana, employed the idea in his essay “Security of the Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation”. The Indo-Pacific was alluded to again in 2007 by the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in a speech to the Indian parliament which spoke of a broader Asia as an evolving network of increased cooperation and trade. In 2013, the Australian government published a defence White Paper that defined the Indo-Pacific as Canberra’s “priority strategic focus”.

In the US, the concept rose to prominence during the Trump administration, with the change in name of the US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command and the State Department’s 2019 report, committing to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. For Washington, the concept of the Indo-Pacific is underpinned by the informal alliance of the ‘Quad’ countries, made up of the US, Japan, India and Australia, that originally came together in 2004 to coordinate a response to the tsunami. The Biden administration is trying to revitalise the grouping – on the 12th of March, President Biden convened the first summit of ‘Quad’ leaders to develop a shared agenda and a coordinated response to China.   

What’s the link between the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific?

Part of the reason why the Indo-Pacific has risen to prominence is the changing geopolitics of energy. Since the shale revolution, the US has overcome its dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf and consequently the security architecture it developed to manage the region. For the Biden administration, the deep engagement with the Middle East over the last two decades represented, according to newly appointed Asia czar, Kurt Campbell, was a “substantial detour” in which Washington became “over-invested”. Nonetheless, the hydrocarbons of the Middle East remain of paramount importance to the rising powers of the Indo-Pacific. China imports 38 per cent of its crude oil from the Middle East while India relies on the region for 80 per cent of its oil needs.

The politics of energy and the need to seek new trading opportunities have led Asian powers to prioritise the Middle East in their connectivity plans. India has pushed ahead with the development of Chabahar port in Iran and proposed its inclusion in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) route, connecting Mumbai with Moscow. At the same time, Chinese consortiums have invested in improving connectivity with the region, with major developments such as Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa port and a $11 billion industrial zone in the Omani port of Duqm. In 2018, the Chinese government announced its initiative for the Middle East, the "Industrial Park-Port Interconnection, Two-Wheel and Two-Wing Approach", linking the region to its connectivity plans as part of its Belt and Road agenda. The importance of the region to Asian powers has been underscored in recent weeks with signs of increasing security cooperation – on 3 March, the Indian air force participated in a multinational joint exercise with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, South Korea and France. Given the focus of the Integrated Review in bolstering ties with Delhi, it is vital to understand how India conceives of the new Indo-Pacific and the increasing integration of the Middle East in this region. 

The Middle East is also emerging as a critical arena for competition in the Indo-Pacific. In addition to cultivating energy ties and commercial interests, global powers have competed to build up security infrastructure around key regional maritime chokepoints in the Bab el-Mandeb and Strait of Hormuz that connect the Middle East to the wider Indo-Pacific. China has invested extensively in the small, but strategically located, Djibouti, building Beijing’s first overseas base, as well as financing Africa’s largest port and a railway to Ethiopia. Meanwhile, Middle Eastern powers have jostled for influence in neighbouring Somalia, with Turkey signing a deal with the federal government to develop Mogadishu port in competition with UAE-financed port in the breakaway Somalia state of Puntland.

Russia, described by the Integrated Review as “the most acute direct threat to the UK”, also views its presence in the Middle East as central to its goals for influence in the Indo-Pacific. Moscow has realised that a bid to influence the wider region requires a niche focus and has concentrated its efforts in the Middle East and East Africa. Russia has sought to establish military bases in Egypt and has signed a deal to build a naval facility in Sudan – highlighting the growing competition in the Red Sea. The UK has potential for influence in this area, having recently developed a military base in Duqm, Oman. Located in between the maritime chokepoints of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, the facility represents a major asset for the Integrated Review’s goal of making the UK a leader in maritime security and trade.

Within the Indo-pacific, the Middle East represents a major opportunity for the British economy post-Brexit. As a bloc, the GCC is Britain’s third largest non-EU export destination behind the US and China, with bilateral trade amounting to almost £45 billion in 2019. The Middle East is a fast-changing region with a huge youth population and a growing tech sector. In 2019, the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund invested $550 million in the UK med-tech company, Babylon, that has built a platform for the NHS allowing patients to book appointments by videocall. By making the Middle East an area of focus within an “Indo-Pacific tilt”, Britain can pursue its goal of becoming an export-driven technology power while securing an important geopolitical role for a new competitive age.

The Integrated Review sets out a strategic course-correction and rightly posits the Indo-Pacific as the fulcrum of the global economy and great power rivalry. The brief mention of the Middle East describes “thriving relations” with the region, “based on trade, green innovation and science and technology collaboration” and a desire to work “in support of a more resilient region that is increasingly self-reliant in providing for its own security.” A truly competitive approach to the Indo-Pacific would recognise the key role of the Middle East and the importance of boosting the UK’s engagement with the region.

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