So, this is interesting. At last week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, the United Kingdom announced it was opening up diplomatic representation in nine countries: Lesotho, Swaziland, the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.

It is one of the first concrete pre-Brexit indications of how the UK is looking to position itself globally.

The choice of countries is telling. While the nine are relatively small in terms of population, they are strategically located in the Caribbean, Africa and Oceania—all areas that are becoming geopolitically more complex. All have strong historic ties to the UK, have large English-speaking populations and are members of the Commonwealth.

Three, Lesotho, Swaziland and Tonga have monarchies. All three of those Kings have personal relationships with British Royals and did some of their education in the UK. Seven of the nine are island nations and subject to increasing environmental stressors, a long-standing concern of the next head of the Commonwealth, Prince Charles.

Most also host relatively few other diplomatic missions. Until recently, for example, Antigua and Barbuda, had only four embassies in its capital: Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and China. And it’s that last country, China, which may give a hint at an element of the new UK strategy.

After the end of the Cold War, there was a feeling among some in the West that it was the “End of History” and there was no longer any need to keep open conversations with the seemingly smaller nations of the world. In some Western capitals, foreign policy focus became narrowly economic, discounting the strategic value of wider engagement. In the UK, for example, there was a sense that, especially from the start of the new millennia, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was being asked to become a PR branch of Britain Inc. Where the UK’s diplomats were once tasked with listening, understanding and analysing the realities of their postings, then conveying that back to London, now they were tasked primarily with conveying messages from the UK to the locals about whatever London’s priorities were that week.

As listening and understanding ground realities were undervalued, it inevitably led to the UK shutting or downgrading dozens of missions in the Pacific, Africa, Latin America and Caribbean. Two of the Pacific missions now being reopened, Tonga and Vanuatu, were closed in 2006.

In the meantime, while the UK and other countries were closing posts, China has been establishing large missions in every country with which it has diplomatic relations. Beijing’s strategy has been particularly effective in the smaller countries, where there is less diplomatic “competition”.

As a result, with the West’s primary focus elsewhere, China has very quickly set down deep roots in a wide range of countries across the world, giving it strategic depth and positioning, “low cost” votes in international fora, and ironically (given this was the rational for the UK and others to pull out in the first place), economic advantage.

In this context, the UK’s choice of countries to re-engage with is very interesting indeed. In most of the cases, the nations concerned have complex relations with their major Western regional partner and are drifting towards China, almost by default. The UK offers a third choice—perhaps not economically as yet, but strategically.

Let’s see what this might mean in the Pacific. In the case of Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu, the main Western partners are Australia and New Zealand. There have been serious problems with the relationships. In one recent example, Australia and New Zealand have been threatening to withhold work visas for people from Vanuatu unless it signs on to a trade deal that has the potential to destabilise its economy.

That sort of short-term narrow economic bullying undermines regional stability and long-term growth and inevitably benefits China. In Vanuatu, as elsewhere, the relationships with China have deepened through loans, immigration, infrastructure project, scholarships, etc. Earlier this month there were (now discounted) reports that China wanted a naval base in Vanuatu.

With the UK in Vanuatu, another set of (Five) eyes joins the fray. With less of an immediate economic stake in the country, London might be able to add a valuable layer of strategic analysis to soften the rougher edges of existing Western engagement—making the region more secure and ultimately prosperous, and so making it harder for China. The UK benefits by reviving its unique relationships with a wide range of countries across the globe. If it goes back to its core skills of listening and understanding, it will gain much needed friends that can also help it get the votes it needs in international fora now that it is losing EU leverage, increases its value within Five Eyes and, as it happens, become more useful to Europeans countries as well, given few are represented in these nine countries.

Tonga, for example, currently only has the embassies/high commissions of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China. Now, when a Canadian diplomat visits, they go to the New Zealand high commission for a briefing. Next year, they might go to the Brits.

Which raises questions for India. Is there something to learn from the UK approach of low cost, high impact, niche pivotal geopolitics? India, a keystone of the Indo-Pacific, has no representative based in the Pacific countries of Tonga, Samoa or Vanuatu (or Kiribati, Tuvalu, Nauru, etc). It used to rely on Australian and New Zealand guidance in Oceania on issues such as the coup in Fiji. What will it do now?

Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.

 

Replies to “India can learn from UK’s low cost, high impact geopolitics”

  1. Cleo,
    You probably mean well but please research the countries you talk about. Especially check out Swaziland: News from and about Swaziland, compiled by Africa Contact, Denmark (www.afrika.dk) in collaboration with Swazi Media Commentary (www.swazimedia.blogspot.com), and sent to all with an interest in Swaziland – free of charge.
    To subscribe mail to: SAK-Swazinewsletter-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk

    You have no idea how this so called “monarchy” behaves.

    Also note that the Chinese are heavily involved in Vanuatu, (to the consternation of some in Australia).

  2. Swaziland is a despotic feudal backwater run by a self-seeking, “king” who totally disregards the welfare of his people. He plunders the country, amasses his fortune in Switzerland and relies on western charities to hold back population starvation. He has 13 wives and a fleet of top-range cars and maintains power by force. I know, I volunteered there for the Australian government. For extra proof please see: News from and about Swaziland, compiled by Africa Contact, Denmark (www.afrika.dk) in collaboration with Swazi Media Commentary (www.swazimedia.blogspot.com), and sent to all with an interest in Swaziland – free of charge.
    To subscribe mail to: SAK-Swazinewsletter-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk. Also feel free to email me. There should be NO diplomatic relations until human rights are respected and there is democracy rather than bullying oppression.

  3. Well , for one the whole world has it appears been shaken up by the Chinese!
    China has always followed a long term vision for it’s growth path as well as the military/ Naval strength and with her industrial / economic growth we now have an uncontrollable Dragon looking us in the face! The USA are at their whits end searching for strategy to counter the Chinese.
    India as ever the slow to wake and short sighted country is at a loss in her search for a meaningful strategy to counter the twin troublesome partners at her northern and Western borders.
    We need to walk slow and watch where this declared new policy by UK will head.
    World affairs suggest turbulence and choppy seas!

  4. Good article. Brings back memories. In 1972 I was sent from the Canadian High Commission in Wellington to present a formal note to the Tongan government ( and to receive one in return) establishing “direct” diplomatic relations with the small country. Similar process with the then Western Samoa). Our High Commissioner a few months later went to present his credentials as non resident head of mission. There was one British resident diplomat in Nukualofa, and I recall he reported back to the FCO, not one of the British High Commissions in the region. There was no British Rep in Apia, and perhaps, to read your article there may not be a UK mission there even now. NZ was represented there, but not Australia. I also arranged for RCN ships’ visits to both places as well as Fiji and NZ ( we still had HMC ships that could travel that far!). Tonga in particular was awash with souvenir Maple Leaf shopping bags , brought aboard HMCS Gatineau, during and after the visit when the ship was open to visitors. With the agreement of both governments, a young Tongan army officer was invited aboard, and stayed with the ship for several months of sea training since he was to take over responsibility for the island’s patrol boats. Our initial “aid” program consisted of a used photocopy machine and (from me personally) a multi year collection of Playboy magazines for the Nukualofa club.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

*

*