Seminar on “The UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘Tilt’: Progress, Challenges and Prospects”

In this hybrid seminar, Sir Mark Sedwill discussed Britain’s plans to play a more active role in the Indo-Pacific region following the 2016 Brexit referendum.


Wednesday, 5 October 2022 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted Sir Mark Sedwill, Baron Sedwill of Sherborne KCMG FRGS, to conduct a hybrid seminar titled “The UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘Tilt’: Progress, Challenges and Prospects”.  The talk covered the strategic rationales and prospects of the United Kingdom’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, which was outlined in a landmark policy document released in March 202 titled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”. Sir Mark is currently the Chairman of the Atlantic Futures Forum and a cross-bench member of the House of Lords, having previously served as Cabinet Secretary & Head of the Civil Service (2018-20), National Security Adviser (2017-20), Permanent Secretary at the Home Office (2013-17), and British Ambassador and NATO Representative in Afghanistan (2009-11).

Speaker Sir Mark Sedwill with moderator Dr Ian Storey. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Sir Mark shared that the UK’s aspiration to carve a greater role for itself in the Indo-Pacific predated Brexit, although the departure from the European Union made it “vital” for the UK to heighten its engagement with regions beyond Europe. He explained that the Indo-Pacific “tilt” advances the UK’s “three clusters” of interests—namely, security and defence, economy and trade, influence and values.

Given that the UK is a globalised economy enmeshed within multilateral supply chains, Sir Mark stated it made sense for the UK to “deepen trading and economic links with the region”, which he described as “an engine of global growth”. He also emphasised that the UK’s economic agreements should be fit for purpose for the 21st century, which includes having provisions to cover issues related to investments, technology and skills. To underscore the importance of the UK’s global economic linkages, Sir Mark related how, in a conversation with the former US President Donald Trump, he characterised the idea of “Global Britain” as being as “hard-edged” and significant as Trump’s America First. Sir Mark also shared that one of the guiding rules for the UK during its negotiations with the EU on a post-Brexit economic agreement was that the outcome should not prevent the UK from entering the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – an indication of the Indo-Pacific’s economic importance to the UK.

The UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt also serves the country’s security and defence interests. Firstly, it is intertwined with the UK’s trade interests, especially since 40% of global trade passes through the South China Sea. Secondly, many security threats are global. For instance, North Korea’s missile threat to the continental United States will necessarily pose a danger to the UK and the rest of Europe, since London is geographically closer to Pyongyang than Los Angeles.

The Indo-Pacific is also an important region for the UK to exercise its influence and values. Sir Mark asserted that the “key dividing line” is not between democracy and authoritarianism, but between the countries that support, and operate within, a rules-based global order and those who seek to disrupt that order. He suggested that there are authoritarian countries such as China that are fundamentally committed to a stable rules-based global order, especially with respect to economic and international governance (though this does not necessarily imply an agreement over each rule). This also means that it is possible for the UK to do business and foster productive relationships with countries with different political systems, even if there exist certain issues of contention. For instance, the UK can pursue a relationship with China while protesting Beijing’s behaviour in the South China Sea and crackdown in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, Sir Mark recognised that the UK “can only be friends with those who share the same values”, citing the AUKUS arrangement as an example of countries with deep cultural ties and shared democratic values deepening their relationship.

Sir Mark also clarified that the UK’s focus on the Indo-Pacific is “a tilt, not a lurch”, in response to criticism that such a policy may have been misplaced in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He maintained that investing in the UK’s relationship with the Indo-Pacific does not mean “investing less in traditional friendships” in Europe, North America and the Gulf. Rather, it is about doing more in terms of outreach to this region. Moreover, Sir Mark assured that countries can “count on the UK being involved and more involved in the Indo-Pacific over the next decade”, no matter the developments in the UK’s domestic politics. Although the language and emphasis may change or evolve, Sir Mark stated that “the secular trend is towards greater [UK] involvement and investment in this part of the world”.

Sir Mark concluded his talk by identifying climate change as a challenge that cannot be dealt with properly unless China and the United States are able to cooperate on the matter. He described climate change as a long-term security threat which has to be engaged at a global level and which needs to include the participation of China, the largest economy in the world.

During the Q&A session with the 40-strong in-person audience (with another 40 joining the session online), Sir Mark addressed issues relating to, among others, hostage diplomacy, the future of the Union in light of separatist sentiments in Scotland and Wales, the impact of the turbulence in the UK’s domestic politics on its soft power, the challenges encountered by the UK civil service during the Brexit process, the growing scepticism of China among the UK political elite, and the UK’s support for ASEAN Centrality in the wake of its commitments to other regional security frameworks such as AUKUS. 

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)