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.