Whether Theresa May's replacement as British Prime Minister this month will have tectonic consequences remains to be seen, but her successor's, Boris Johnson's "global Britain" cry raises an eyebrow or two for a country far too historically steeped in "global" dynamics. His first call was when he was mayor of one of the world's most global modern-age cities, London, and about a country too regretful for its European-driven introversion from a "globe" it once dominated (how one recalls the sun never sets in the British Empire refrain). Much of Johnson's eight-year mayor-ship from 2008 antedated the 2014 Brexit referendum, and even if the Brexit mindset was brewing across England during his mayoral tenure, Johnson remarkably disagreed with his constituency on the Brexit referendum: he championed the "Vote Leave" cause, even though Londoners largely opted, by a 60 per cent margin, for the "Remain" camp. Eventually entering May's cabinet as Foreign Secretary, Johnson then broke ranks with her and her stripe, fearing a "semi-Brexit" would result from negotiating with the European Union (EU).
Prime Minister Johnson will now have to show he can do better than jumping ships. Hauntingly over one arm will hover the Brexit ghost: will he extricate his country by October 2019, as he has pledged to do, with or without a deal? Over the other will linger those global considerations he was more vocal about as Foreign Secretary: how much of the "globe" would he be able to get behind him once the European Union membership is over with, but particularly "east of Suez," as he also touted so sprightly when in office.
Behind his self-conjured agenda and purposes lies reality, with all its imponderables. It is these unknowns that he may have to battle through, or reassure against, even as he closes his country's "European" windows: one must seriously distinguish bilateral deals, which he will pursue, from the collective, which he, indeed Brexit followers, want reined in. Before European "deals" (reality also suggests it will not be just one agreement but many, since different members have a different take on Britain's departure, as they do with trade or investment), Johnson must revisit the Asia of today, Asia, as opposed to Africa or Latin America, because this is the heart of his "east of Suez" mindset. Just in the time since he was Foreign Secretary, the United States has thrice mobilised its navy along Asian shores, with North Korea, Iran, and, even as this is being written, China over a Taiwan-based spat involving US military exports to that island. If these have helped divide Asian country-loyalties, China's global outlook over those two years have also wrought concerns: beginning with US tariffs now threatening many Chinese neighbours into deals with China (exactly the opposite of what the Trump administration had in mind). India, Japan, and Vietnam have been forthright on this front, while there is also the Huawei-driven chasm splitting other Asian countries one way or the other, if not swallowing the benefits by remaining with China, then worrying about sanctions by not supporting the US position to lead a global crackdown on Chinese software interference in host-country politics.
Johnson's policy positions over North Korean denuclearisation (and thereby any future US sanctions/blockade), Iran's vilification by the United States for reneging on the 2015 P5+1 nuclear agreement (especially when European countries do not believe the US claims, and have, thus far, stayed away from the US-Iran dispute, with Britain closer to the US position than to Europe's), and particularly over supporting Taiwan opens up another can of worms since the unravelling of adjacent British-controlled Hong Kong 20 years after the island's return to China forces Britain to question China's stand.
Post-Brexit Britain will desperately need sizable economic agreements, and these can only come from Asia. Yet, if Asia is so divided and feel so insecure with an "iffy" Britain, how those agreements will quickly evolve may become the lesser question than whether Britain will survive economically. It can always count on Australia and New Zealand on yonder side of Asia, and be equally confident with Singapore and Brunei (where its only military station "east of Suez" lies). Toning the confidence level down somewhat would put Malaysia on that list, while Japan, which is itself on an urgent shopping-spree across Asia for economic projects, labour, and support, is open to new inducements, such being the external pressure it apprehends. Given how heavy-handed China becomes, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam rank among the approachable countries for Britain.
India, once again, emerges as the "crown jewel" of everything British, only this time from the dictating end of the negotiating table than the receiving. On Johnson's plus side is another populist he can hobnob with in Narendra Modi, the caveat being the more Johnson plunges into this pursuit, the more he might alienate other countries, Pakistan being the most prominent among them, especially as Imran Khan's Pakistan is rebuilding US ties. The United States is one anchor Great Britain cannot abandon in such choppy seas as 21st century politics.
On the flip side, Indian businessmen have been shrewd enough to stake out European playgrounds, and even as Brexit negotiations proceeded, many Indian businessmen have opted to target European markets over Britain's, thus shifting headquarters to European locations from British. One wrong move here could even question the financial viability of the very city Johnson was mayor of once: London.
India's other British card is the long-list of a prosperous middle-tier of emigrants tossed around the British Isles. Johnson might have to go out of his way to lure them to strengthen his negotiations in New Delhi. Nonetheless, India does not seem intent to deepen relationship any which way: it enjoys enormous, albeit hugely skewed, trade relations with China; ties with Japan have been warming beyond the usual; and Donald J. Trump's tariffs have also rocked India's expectations when it was least expected to, meaning Asia may have all the answers or solutions that seem to be evaporating in the west, at least for Johnson to latch on to. No full-fledged, or carte blanche commitment is expected with any country under those circumstances.
Great Britain needs nothing short of that unfortunately. Johnson once believed China to be the British trump card in any Brexit future. Although prior expectations may not change, times have: they have been reconfigured, as they continue to be everyday in this anthropocentric age of constant technological innovations and developments leaving human beings constantly flat-footed, by and large. China might remain, as it always has been, open to big business, especially with the Belt Road Initiative now entering Europe (through Italy), that too, amid European growth slowing, while US tariffs begin to bite, and political problems encircle China (from Uighur concentration camps, to North Korea re-launching nuclear missiles, to the Hong Kong protests threatening China from within, and sanctions upon Iran at a time when China needs projects across that fractious part of the world). Deals could be hard to cut, but they could sink deep, the only point being Britain arriving at the wrong time with the wrong priorities, under perhaps the wrong leader may find the sun whose rise once attended every British move now setting wherever Britain once had a realm, or roamed scot-free, or resorted to only under duress.
The Twenty-first century is not for any faintly constituted entity, but only for the lion-hearted.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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