The recent launch of a research paper raised interesting questions regarding global trade, security and the balance of power. Subhash Chopra attended the event

The Henry Jackson Society’s Report on Global Britain and Sea Trade in the Indo-Pacific Region was launched in the House of Commons on May 22.

Over 90 per cent of global trade today is carried by sea, and despite the development of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), this will remain the dominant pattern of trade for the foreseeable future, which makes the protection of sea lanes of communication (SLOC) a matter of global security concern.

Outlining the role of various powers in such a trade scenario in the Indo-Pacific region, the Henry Jackson Society 2018 report lists three distinct action drivers: first, the trade risks for Asian countries across the Indian Ocean; second, the emergence of India as a great power in the Indian Ocean; and thirdly, the role and presence of the US in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The report, entitled ‘Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific’, underscores the importance of Britain’s role and strength as a sea power in the area. lt almost exhorts that ‘Britain must go to Asia and it must go by sea’. Yet, despite its title and emphasis, the report’s ambit covers much greater concerns.

Authored by Dr John Hemmings of HJS as a research paper for the Asia Studies Centre, it asserts that despite Brexit, Britain has a one-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape its global posture. It urges Britain to continue to play an active role in defending NATO’s Eastern flank and states that Global Britain’s future posture should be a strong maritime one, using its history and capabilities to defend Europe’s maritime security and sea lanes of communication.

The report’s analysis of China’s Belt and Road Initiative is interesting. BRI, says Hemmings, which has now become enshrined as ‘core interest’, has also become increasingly suspected of having semi-imperial ambitions. ‘Political leaders in India have expressed concerns that the “debt-trap diplomacy” being practised by Beijing is impacting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries along the route.’ France’s leader, Emmanuel Macron, cautioned recently that the New Silk Road could not be ‘one-way’, and that ‘these roads cannot be those of a new hegemony, which transforms nations they cross into vassals’.

One study by a Washington think tank found that one-third of the countries signed up to BRI were vulnerable to debt distress, with at least eight already at risk of defaulting on Chinese loans. When countries default, China has been known to swap debt for equity, as when it swapped Sri Lanka’s debts in building Hambantota Port for a 70 per cent stake in the port in a 99-year lease. As a consequence, India’s growing security ties with Vietnam – a fellow non-aligned regional power and rival claimant of China’s in the South China Sea – is seen as India’s counter move to China, whose debt-diplomacy is making inroads in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Pakistan.

On a broader and geographically wider scale, the emergence of a Quadrilateral ‘alignment’ of the United States, Japan, India and Australia is seen as a balancing strategy. The move allows the four nations the ability to develop closer naval interoperability on the high seas. It is also meant to send a soft deterrent signal to China’s increasing military build-up in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

The HJS report was launched with Sir Hugo Swire MP in the chair and Mr Hayato Hosoya, Academy Fellow at Chatham House, Ms Veerie Nouwens, Research Fellow for Asia Studies at RUSI and Dr Hemmings of HJS on the panel of speakers. Ms Nouwens welcomed the report as an important document in view of China’s increasing economic strength and activity, underlining security needs of the ASEAN region.  Mr Hosoya dwelt on the UK’s trade relations with the region, particularly in dealings with China and Japan.

In the question-answer session, the Chinese stance on trade and general relations was summed-up by one questioner as ‘self-centric’, leaving little hope for any progressive deals. Another described Pakistan as a country totally in the grip of the Chinese, while one audience member voiced the suggestion: ‘Put your money on India’. Others spoke about India and Japan as important players to hold the balance.


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