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Transatlantic Take

Asian Leaders Agree About Little, Except That They Want Britain to Remain

Photo: Harry Metcalfe

Photo: Harry Metcalfe

WASHINGTON - There are very few strategic issues on which China, Japan, and India agree unequivocally. The possible “Brexit” is a rare case. Asia represents the region closest to the Brexiteers’ vision of a new frontier of fast-growing economies with which a U.K. freed to negotiate its own trade deals would look to deepen ties. Sentiment there, however, is overwhelmingly set against these arguments.  

The U.K.’s position in Asia policymaking in Europe is distinctive. As one of a handful of European states that have a real depth of experience and exposure in the region, it naturally occupies an outsized role. Asia is perhaps the region where the broader post-Brexit weakening of the EU’s global outlook would be felt most acutely.

At the recent IISS Shangri La dialogue in Singapore, a gathering of defense policymakers and experts, these broader strategic concerns were evident. While the public stage was dominated by a to-and-fro between U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chinese admiral Sun Jianguo about whether China’s maritime assertiveness was “self-isolating,” privately some participants were anxious that the West was in danger of entering into a self-isolating phase of its own. Brexit was paired with Trumpism and the rise of other nativist forces as a forerunner of western retreat from efforts to shape the international order, at precisely the juncture when it is facing some of its greatest threats.

For Japan, a British exit would represent the loss of its closest partner in the EU. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a particular priority of pressing the Europeans to respond more seriously to the region’s challenges. Recent months had seen promising signs of greater European activism on strategic issues in Asia, with stronger language on the South China Sea, and striking French proposals for a European naval presence to back it up. Those proposals would look much thinner should the only other European power with any real capacity for a hard power role leave the EU.

For its part, China – while unhappy to see growing European interest in Asian maritime issues – has been a consistent backer of a strong, stable EU as a pole of global order. Whatever divide-and-rule tactics China plays over bilateral issues, Beijing has been supportive of the EU through its worst crises. Brexit is no exception: President Xi’s remarks during his visit to the U.K. were unusually explicit. China has valued British pragmatism and geopolitical seriousness in European political decision-making, not just its free trade proclivities.

But economic factors loom large. Every major Asian economy has banked on Britain as its gateway to the EU, a phrase echoed publicly and privately by senior officials from all sides. China had been doubling down on its British bet, believing that the U.K. could be its critical economic partner in Europe as China’s economic transition gathers pace. The U.K. has been by far the biggest recipient of Chinese federal direct investment (FDI) in Europe. Japan and India are even larger investors in the U.K., with India now behind only the United States and France among sources of FDI. Yet, both the Indian Prime Minister and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry have warned that this would be endangered if the U.K. were to leave. The chairman of the Japan Business Forum said that the impact on Japanese businesses would be “immeasurable.”

The economic cost would also be felt in the loss of the U.K. voice in EU decision-making processes. China has relied on the British as a bulwark of anti-protectionism. The U.K. has also provided considerable impetus to the EU’s free trade agreement push in Asia, with successes including deals with Vietnam, Korea, and Singapore. Larger agreements will be more challenging to conclude if the EU’s leading free trader is removed from the equation. U.K.-specific arrangements are considerably less appealing than London’s efforts to promote deals with the world’s largest single market.

Attempts to suggest that the U.K. could be even more engaged with Asia in the aftermath of an exit from the EU are met with raised eyebrows. The prospect of Boris-Johnson-led British trade delegations would not compensate for an inward turn on the EU’s part and the forces that a Brexit would embolden. One of Japan’s leading Europe experts, Michito Tsuruoka, summed up the sentiment among Japanese observers who are “beginning to question the rationality and pragmatism of the British.”

Unlike U.S. and European political leaders, Brexiteers did not insult the various Asian heads of state and government after their statements of support for Britain remaining in the EU. A post-Brexit British government would at least have less fence-mending to do in Asia. But if its ministers show up in Beijing, Tokyo, and Delhi, stories about a Britain liberated to pursue a new role in the world beyond Europe will be greeted with the same concern for their connection to reality as everywhere else.