Alessio Patalano analyses Rishi Sunak’s first foreign policy speech as Prime Minister, highlighting that his approach places the sea at the centre of the UK’s future and reflects his longstanding preference for policies that strengthen the conditions for prosperity.
On 28 November the British Prime Minister gave his first foreign policy speech since taking office the previous month. Addressing those gathered for the traditional Lord Mayor’s banquet, Rishi Sunak charted the contours of his approach to Britain’s future foreign relationships. With limited experience on the matter, there was much anticipation among international observers about a foreign policy speech that came in the wake of Sunak’s participation at the COP 27 and G-20 summits, and from meetings with the head of NATO and the President of Ukraine. What would Sunak’s approach be?
This is not a trifling question. Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe remains unresolved; the war in Ukraine is far from drawing to a close and British commitment to support Kyiv stands unshaken; and a future relationship with China is still in search of a new framework. Crucially, any meaningful answer to this question would demand some indication as to how Britain would be able to deliver on it at a time of challenging domestic politics and ramping inflation.
The Prime Minister’s answer was, at a first glance, deceptively unassuming. This is because at heart it built upon a worldview that had already been articulated in the Integrated Review (IR) adopted in March 2021. In this respect, his speech was remarkably consistent with a policy journey that draws its roots in the early days of Boris Johnson’s government. Yet, it was a strong statement setting forth a plan for a politically principled, diplomatically nimble, and militarily sharp Britain.
Sunak made the question of fundamental values a personal matter. The notions of freedom and openness enabled his grandparents to make a life in Britain, and to him how we attain and protect freedom depends on the challenges to its pursuit.
Today, in a world defined by war in Europe and suppression of UN-guaranteed civil liberties elsewhere, including in China, the hardening of inter-state competition demanded adaption. In that spirit, he sharpened the IR language about China, presenting the country as a systemic ‘challenge’, instead of a mere ‘competitor’.
He signalled the end of the ‘Golden Era’ of Sino-British ties as defined under the Cameron governments. He specifically rejected the naïve belief that trade would lead to social and political reforms. He further acknowledged that as challengers like Russia and China plan for the long term, Britain needed to more robustly defend the values of openness delivering the prosperity needed to push back against growing authoritarianism. He was offering a view of Britain in which principles demanded a pragmatic approach to ensure their applicability.
Such an approach informed the strongest vision of any recent Prime Minister yet about how Britain links values to prosperity and security. In a world in which the economic realities of the Indo-Pacific will define the quality and depth of growth over the next two decades, ensuring the security and stability of trade lines is a key British strategic interest. For the seeds of Britain’s long-term domestic prosperity to be planted, Sunak argued, investing into the security of the maritime order was a priority.
This should come as no surprise. Long before he came to wider political attention as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Johnson’s government, Rishi Sunak was the author of a ground-breaking report on the vulnerability of undersea cables and their importance to economic resilience. Then, as now, Sunak was highlighting that digital and physical connectivity stand as conduits to prosperity that rest on safe maritime arteries.
At the Lord Mayor’s banquet, therefore, Rishi Sunak made the case for a quiet and principled revolution. He was expanding on the IR’s worldview by placing the connecting nature of the sea at the centre of Britain’s future. In a context in which 90% of global trade by volume and value, and 97% of global data are delivered by shipping lanes and undersea cables, respectively. He offered a maritime-centric geopolitical view. In it, the maritime order should represent Britain’s highway to prosperity and the benchmark against which judging the country’s profile as a security actor committed to open economies and societies. Sunak was taking the nineteenth century naval historian Julian Corbett’s view of a maritime Britain of old and making it fit for the twenty-first century.
This leads to a second observation. Sunak’s view for a Britain as a contemporary maritime power played to the strengths of an asymmetric use of influence and power. In foreign relations, this meant that Sunak’s speech rewarded a diplomatically nimble approach to collective action. Different forums would be used to pursue different agendas, from the G-7 to the Commonwealth and the New European Community on matters of policy and economics, from NATO and the Joint Expeditionary Force to the Five Powers Defence Arrangements in security.
In making this choice, Sunak crucially removed the false dichotomy between remaining a relevant actor in the Euro-Atlantic region and pursuing unattainable ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. These two theatres, precisely because of their centrality, from a British perspective, to the stability of the maritime order, are indivisible.
In a maritime century defined by a sharpening competition with states like Russia and China, the key for Britain was to focus on how to maximise a synergic approach to both. It demanded greater coordination among the different levers of statecraft, from military capabilities to financial and science heft, applied judiciously across different affiliations.
For such an approach to work the Prime Minister indicated that Britain would maintain a sharper security identity. Support to Ukraine since before the invasion had already shown a Britain with a stronger appetite for risks, standing at the vanguard of addressing a major crisis. Sunak’s maritime Britain is likely to continue on this trajectory. Trading mass for manoeuvrability and lethality, reference to agreements such as AUKUS with Australia and the United States, and FCAS with Japan and Italy, ensured a down payment in an advanced maritime and air military edge.
In all, the Prime Minister’s first speech on foreign policy reflected his longstanding preference for policies aimed at strengthening the conditions for prosperity. Yet, as he pointed out, such a seemingly desirable objective cannot be pursued without a respect for the values that define how it is achieved. For Britain this means adapting to a contested international space, one in which the country’s return to a championing of the maritime order might very well define how his contribution will be remembered.
By Alessio Patalano, Professor of War and Strategy in East Asia, King’s College London.