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UK’s diplomatic reset on the cards

THE United Kingdom’s (UK) new Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, has had sufficient time to think things through. As the Shadow Foreign Secretary since 2021, he has clocked nearly 50 visits abroad and watched the erosion of Britain’s global standing, largely as a consequence of a messy Brexit, a sluggish economy and unprecedented political instability over 14 years of Conservative rule. He aims to turn things around, primarily through a reset on the UK’s approach towards Europe, climate and the Global South, while managing what he cannot reset. Lammy’s approach, defined as ‘progressive realism’, is inspired by two of his Labour predecessors — Ernest Bevin and Robin Cook, one a hard-nosed post-War realist who helped kick-start NATO and the other a proponent of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy. Deploying this doctrine, Lammy would seek to promote Britain’s national interests while recapturing prominence in global governance and international development.

Labour is determined to stabilise the UK’s relationship with Europe, particularly through better trade and security ties.

The present turbulent international landscape provides enough challenges to test any doctrine. Conflicts in Ukraine and West Asia are not going away. In fact, the Israel-Hezbollah confrontation is dangerously close to triggering a wider escalation. A grimly determined Russia and an aggressive China have ensured that great power rivalry is here to stay in a world where the ‘rule-based international liberal order’ is an obsolete shibboleth. A deeply polarising presidential election in the US could throw its own set of wrenches into the works, particularly if Donald Trump returns to the White House. Climate, trade, migration, technological divide and an increasingly disenchanted Global South demand agile engagement. Objective constraints, resource crunches, domestic compulsions and an instinctive alignment with the US in all situations will instil realism.

Labour is determined to stabilise the UK’s relationship with Europe, particularly through better trade and security ties. European leaders will have time for Keir Starmer; they had tuned off the Tory Prime Ministers after the shenanigans that accompanied ‘getting Brexit done’. The 75th anniversary NATO summit this week could see the new PM spell out the UK’s strong support for Ukraine and the need for a strong trans-Atlantic relationship. Ironically, the same relationship could flounder with a second Trump term and put Britain in a spot six months from now. Later this month, the UK will host the summit of the 47-member European Political Community (which interestingly includes Georgia and Azerbaijan). Trade, immigration, security and defence are expected to be in Starmer’s talking points, though any return to the European Union (EU), a single market or even a customs union has been ruled out.

From South Block’s perspective, the UK’s approach to China — marked by confused ambivalence during the Tory period — will be of particular interest. The decade 2010-20 saw a lovefest between the two countries, with David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, being the starry-eyed poster boys of this relationship. The highpoint came, so characteristically for Britain, in a pub with a half-mocking Xi Jinping drinking beer and eating fish and chips with Cameron. Things changed after the pandemic as widespread security concerns, including in the Huawei 5G case, emerged and the US-China relations soured. Since then, the British government has tried to juggle its security concerns and its economic engagement, but this approach lacks clarity and consistency. Lammy has promised a ‘full audit across Whitehall’. This audit, however, is unlikely to provide any dramatic way out of the fundamental quandary: China, despite its assertive behaviour, is a major market for the UK, a critical source of imports and a potential partner for addressing global problems like climate change and technological governance. US pressure to align on China is only likely to increase, no matter who reaches the White House.

Meanwhile, the new government has the three Cs mantra: cooperate where we can, compete where we need to and challenge where we must. This mantra will soon be under stress as the UK will have to decide whether it will join the EU, US and Canada in probing massive subsidies extended by China to its electric vehicles now flooding foreign markets. Increased tariffs following the probe would invariably attract Chinese retaliation and go against Labour’s growth promise.

A related matter is the UK’s ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific both for security and economic concerns. This tilt, its initial ambition already moderated by the Tories, was earlier criticised by Labour since it could take away resources from Europe. But Labour, too, has now accepted its strategic logic, and it remains to be seen how the new government can build on the early steps towards defence diplomacy and deployments in the region, participation in the AUKUS (a trilateral security partnership for the Indo-Pacific region between Australia, the UK and the US), dialogue partnership with ASEAN and membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Enhanced Indo-Pacific engagement could lead to closer strategic links between India and the UK in maritime security on the pattern of India-US relations. In geostrategic terms, it would mean that the sun has finally set on the ‘golden era’ of Sino-British relations.

The new government has so far been unequivocally positive on the India relationship. It has stated its clear intention to vigorously pursue the India-UK Free Trade Agreement to an early conclusion. Complicated issues of mobility and migration, market access as well as non-tariff barriers, including labour, environmental and phytosanitary standards, will need to be overcome in the negotiations. Other areas identified for deeper cooperation include security, education, technology and climate change. A roadmap for the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership already exists. It needs an imaginative follow-up.

Shadow Cabinet members, including Lammy, have recently visited India and made flattering references to it as a ‘superpower’ and the “future of Asia, the future of the English language… and the future of democracy itself”. The new government is clearly going the extra mile to blunt, if not erase, unpleasant memories of the troubled relations that Labour has had with the Indian government in the past. Starmer’s message to India that this “is a changed Labour party” would imply that Labour is prepared to cast aside the Pakistan prism when looking at India and would be prepared to prevent with a strong hand any attempt by extremist elements or divisive diasporic politics to rock the boat. This pudding should soon be available for tasting.


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