What British PM Sunak’s first foreign policy speech made clear

The British leader, who came to power last month, promises ‘robust pragmatism’ in his first foreign policy speech.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak departs his official residence at 10 Downing Street
Sunak departs his official residence at 10 Downing Street [File: Tolga Akmen/EPA]

UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak came into office last month with the expectation he would initiate a phase of new, stable conditions for his party and the entire country. He must prepare a post-Brexit Britain, as the war on the European continent continues, for the new geopolitical challenges it faces.

On Monday evening, he gave his first foreign policy speech that was significant for two reasons in particular.

First, Sunak has had no de facto foreign policy profile. Although he has made it clear that he stands by European responsibility and for the defence of liberal values, he did so without outlining a coherent and precise vision for his foreign policy.

“The assumption was that he was close to [former Prime Minister Boris] Johnson on foreign policy, so supportive of Ukraine after Russia’s invasion of their nation, supportive of the US-UK special relationship, cautious over China’s influence on the UK,” Victoria Honeyman, an associate professor of British politics at the University of Leeds, told Al Jazeera.

“Beyond that, it’s hard to know. Although obviously, there has been discussion about whether Sunak’s ethnicity and the fact that his wife has family and business interests in India might lead to better relations with India.”

Second, unlike his immediate predecessors Johnson and Liz Truss, who were foreign ministers before becoming prime ministers, Sunak has no direct experience outside of financial markets on the international stage of geopolitics. However, the lack of experience could also be an advantage.

“[Being an unknown quantity in terms of foreign policy views] meant he was likely to be less ideological and more pragmatic. Given his background as chancellor of the Exchequer and in financial services before entering politics, we can probably also expect him to emphasise economic over security or political factors more,” James Strong, a senior lecturer in British politics and foreign policy at the Queen Mary University of London, told Al Jazeera.

Therefore, his speech on British foreign policy and the role he sees Britain playing were eagerly awaited.

Liberal values

Sunak’s speech made it clear that liberal values ​​would play a significant role and that he did indeed seek to broaden Britain’s influence in the immediate future.

“Freedom and openness have always been the strongest forces of progress,” said Sunak’s keynote speech at the annual Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London. This, however, Sunak continued, was “never achieved by standing still”.

Britain must “do more to defend its values ​​of freedom and openness on the world stage,” Sunak added.

“Robust pragmatism” is the term Sunak used to describe his foreign policy vision for Britain, which he had already displayed during his visit to Kyiv and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week.

The visit underscored Britain’s continued commitment to Ukraine despite the change in leadership. After all, while Britain has been at the forefront of the Western response to Russian aggression, questions about whether Sunak could maintain the defence spending commitment were raised.

But in his speech, Sunak made clear that Britain would stand by Ukraine “as long as it is necessary”.

He committed that military aid should at least be maintained next year and possibly even increased.

In addition, Sunak announced that he would provide new support to Ukraine’s air defences to protect the Ukrainian people and the critical infrastructure.

Moreover, Sunak said that the UK must “end global dependence on authoritarian regimes – starting with Russian gas”.

However, the main question was what Sunak’s position would be on China.

In contrast to the Ukraine issue, he had provided contradictory signals in the past few weeks about how he wanted to shape relations with China in the future.

Britain’s relations with China have significantly deteriorated since UK’s former Prime Minister David Cameron and China’s President Xi Jinping famously shared a pint of beer in a pub in 2016.

“The UK has, over the last five years, tended to treat China with more caution than it had previously. This was driven by concerns over spying accusations, the approach of the US to China and concerns over investment in infrastructure projects,” Honeyman said.

Sensitive time

Setting the course for British-China policy comes at a sensitive time. The protests against the COVID lockdown in many Chinese cities could make it challenging to approach Beijing, and the arrest of a BBC journalist in Shanghai did not help the issue either.

Moreover, the US government has tightened its course against Beijing and essentially banned the import and sale of IT and surveillance technology.

Other countries, including Germany, make takeovers in key technologies by Chinese investors more difficult and are inclined to reconsider their relations with Beijing.

The factors notwithstanding, Sunak emphasised on Monday his willingness to engage with China, stating that Britain could not “simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs – to global economic stability or issues like climate change”.

While he acknowledged the “sharpening competition” with Beijing, he also warned against “simplistic” Cold War rhetoric towards China.

However, this pragmatic approach could lead to internal conflicts, Strong noted.

“The internal politics of the governing Conservative Party makes a softer line on China very difficult. The Conservative Party has grown steadily more China-sceptic in recent years, with the formation of the hawkish China Research Group – a deliberate echo of the European Research Group that pushed for a hard Brexit – helping to shape a much tougher internal line,” Strong said.

Alongside China and Russia, Sunak also made it clear that building strong ties in Europe will be a priority while emphasising that under his leadership, Britain will have a strong interest in deepening partnerships in other parts of the world, such as the Indo-Pacific region.

Domestic challenges

However, Sunak’s foreign policy plans are announced at a time when record inflation, high taxes, the crisis in public services, the deterioration of the healthcare system and the beginning of a possible prolonged recession in Britain raise significant problems for many people.

In this sense, it needs to be seen how far he can advance his foreign policy vision amidst the domestic challenges.

“Britain’s economic weakness inevitably limits his freedom of action,” Strong said.

However, announcing his foreign policy agenda could also benefit the British people amidst the current malaise.

“If you want to increase Britain’s economic interests, research suggests that investing in ODA [Official Development Assistance] funding is a good way to do that. Create more stable, more affluent countries you can trade with and build relationships with,” Honeyman said.

“Britain is already a member of many international organisations, which is a good way to expand your influence globally. Perhaps the most obvious way to benefit the UK economy would be to reach a better economic deal with the EU and/or sign more international trade deals, which is currently looking unlikely.”

For Sunak, success on the foreign policy front will be pivotal, as his party still trails Labour by 20 percent, and the domestic situation is unlikely to create a boost in the polls anytime soon.

Source: Al Jazeera