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Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

The UK is seeking to reshape its global role just as the world itself is changing as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.

We are still grappling with the short-term effects, but the long-term implications are likely to be profound.

As noted elsewhere on this site, the new normal is likely to be very abnormal indeed.

In the post-war period, as the importance of the Commonwealth declined, UK foreign policy was often at risk of falling between the two stools of Washington and Brussels.

Both will always be key relationships for Britain, but the 21st Century – one of greater global prosperity, connectivity and a new technological revolution – promises greater opportunities to diversify the UK’s political and economic partnerships and take part in new coalitions.

In the post-Covid-19 world, the essential objective of Global Britain remains to forge a role that recognises the importance of our relationships with the United States and the European Union, but which isn’t solely dependent on either.

The current crisis highlights the nature of the challenge and may in some ways exacerbate it, as several trends already underway become starker.

Most notably, the crisis has underlined China’s emergence on the global stage and appears to be amplifying US-China great power rivalry.

It is not simply the origination of the disease and China’s equivocation in alerting the international community to it that has correctly prompted scrutiny.

The extent to which China drives global trade and economic growth is clear for all to see. It now accounts for around 17 per cent of global GDP, compared to only four per cent at the time of the SARS episode in 2003.

Then China accounted for less than four per cent of global tourist spending compared to just under 20 per cent at present, according to JP Morgan research.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency’s breakdown of students shows that over a third of non-EU students studying in UK universities are now Chinese.

In 2015, George Osborne pronounced a “golden era” of Sino-British relations.

However, there is no choice but for UK policy to be much more hard-nosed in future.

At a recent Policy Exchange webinar, Lord Hague, former Foreign Secretary, advocated a “two pillar” approach of seeking to avoid strategic dependency on Beijing, while accepting that China’s co-operation would be required to solve global problems.

The extent to which UK policy will be influenced by Washington remains to be seen, but the Huawei dispute is not the first time, and is unlikely to be the last, that US policymakers will express a view on UK engagement with China.

Logically, as the English Channel widens, Brexit points to closer cooperation and convergence with the US.

The US relationship is already indispensable to the UK, particularly in the fields of security and defence, and successfully concluding a UK-US trade deal would provide an important economic and geopolitical boost to Global Britain.

However, it is also the case that President Trump has vacated the US’ traditional global role at a time when the West could do with some leadership.

Just as the Remain campaign found it difficult to make the case for a continued political alliance with the EU, there is also a risk that advocates of a much closer US relationship take British public opinion for granted.

As previously, the UK relationship with the US will need to be tempered with others.

Some will argue that rising political and economic nationalism at the expense of the multilateral system illustrates the folly of Brexit.

However, the crisis has revealed that the EU is ill-suited to global leadership in a world where the nation state is reasserting itself as the essential unit of governance.

Brussels’ preoccupation has been to uphold solidarity within the bloc, rather than to promote it globally.

Equally, the EU remains a superpower on our continent.

We have yet to determine the precise nature of our future relationship but it is in our interests for it to remain functional, if not warm.

To the extent that the EU engages in protectionism, we are shortly going to be on the other side of the fence.

Moreover, the EU’s ongoing quest for “strategic autonomy” in foreign affairs begs the question of autonomy from whom? The only answer can be the US.

The UK may need to make an even stronger European case for Atlanticism from the outside, mobilising allies, particularly in Eastern Europe, to do so.

Meanwhile, the crisis has illustrated the vulnerability of long and fragmented global supply chains and the need for greater national resilience.

In some cases, such as the supply of protective medical equipment, strategic stockpiling will be part of the solution.

But the UK is not big enough on its own to sustain autarky, even if it was desirable.

These challenges also serve to highlight potential ways forward.

The UK retains considerable assets and willing partners in forging its new role. We, alongside a host of other medium and small-sized powers, share an interest in securing a diversity of supply.

This means maintaining and reforming the rules-based international system, rather than see it upended or diminished.

Helping to broker a new and sustainable settlement between the West and China will be difficult but preferable to an escalation in the US-China conflict.

As Liz Truss, the UK Trade Secretary, recently argued, with her counterparts from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, the case for the UK’s membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has been strengthened.

Japan, its biggest member, views the grouping as a means of engaging with China from a position of greater strength and, unlike the EU, the CPTPP does not aspire towards ever closer union.

It is already a club with major economic, and potentially geopolitical, significance. UK membership would enhance both of these properties.

The UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign policy has understandably been paused as attention is directed towards the Government’s immediate crisis response.

When it resumes once some of the dust has settled, it is important that the UK reflects on the full range of tools at its disposal in the new world we find ourselves in. It was curious that trade was not explicitly included in the original remit of the review.

The crisis has illustrated that, whether we wish it or not, trade and foreign policy are inextricably linked.

25 comments for: Stephen Booth: Why Trans-Pacific Partnership membership can bolster the UK’s relationship with the US

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