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U.S. Tilt Toward Asia Could Strain Relations With Britain

Mar. 10, 2012 - 09:17AM   |  
By ANDREW CHUTER   |   Comments
The United States' growing focus on Asia could strain ties between British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and President Barack Obama.
The United States’ growing focus on Asia could strain ties between British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and President Barack Obama. (File photo / Agence France-Presse)
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LONDON — When President Barack Obama announced the focus of the U.S. diplomatic and security effort was swinging toward the Asia-Pacific region, it sent a shiver through many U.S. allies in Europe. Now a committee of senior British parliamentarians says the move is so fundamental that it raises questions for the U.K. about its future relationship with its No. 1 ally.

A joint committee of the House of Commons and House of Lords on March 8 called on the British government to “reflect deeply on the long-term implications of the geographical and functional shifts in U.S. policy now taking place.” The comments were contained in a report on Britain’s national security strategy.

With British Prime Minister David Cameron due in Washington March 13-14 for talks with Obama on the upcoming NATO summit, developments in Afghanistan and other issues, the question of the future shape of the relationship will not be far from the surface.

The committee’s remarks follow the January publication by the U.S. government of a foreign policy shift that envisioned its economic and security focus moving away from Europe toward the Asia-Pacific region.

The British report said the U.S. policy shift raises “fundamental questions if our pre-eminent defense and security relationship is with an ally who has interests which are increasingly divergent from our own.”

The committee said Britain needs to decide whether it will continue to be involved in U.S. military action if Washington’s attention increasingly moves east.

Britain has been heavily involved with the U.S. in recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere.

The mission in Libya, though, marked a shift, since Britain and France took the lead in NATO operations. The U.S. provided extensive intelligence, reconnaissance, aerial tanking and other support.

In recent years, the British have largely based their defense policy on being involved in conflicts as part of a coalition, principally with the U.S. The two sides have deep industrial, intelligence, nuclear and military cooperation going back decades. The committee said there is a need for a clear strategy as to how the U.K., possibly along with other European states, can act without the U.S.

“If the U.S. is moving towards viewing Europe as a producer rather than a consumer of security, and reducing its capability to mount long-term stabilisation missions, it raises more questions as to what we can expect from the U.S. and what the U.S. expects from the U.K.,” the report said.

Lisa Aronsson, the Royal United Services Institute’s trans-Atlantic relations research fellow, said for the longer term, the U.K. needs to think deeply about investing in European capabilities and aiding development of European strategic thinking with regard to leadership in NATO.

But, she said, the U.K.’s shorter-term aims should focus on keeping the U.S. involved in the alliance.

“For the shorter term, there is a real strategic interest in the U.K. in keeping Washington firmly committed to European defense,” Aronsson said. “The NATO framework is something that has worked, and for the short term, at least, the issue is how to keep the U.S. involved and interested.

“Part of that was pushing for a European command structure for Libya, for example,” she said. “But over the long-er term, some deeper thinking is required over how a European defense base can take a bigger role in NATO.”

The U.S. has warned Europe on several occasions that its interest in the region is waning. In part, that’s been triggered by its increasing focus on the Asia-Pacific region and the growing military and diplomatic influence of China. But it also signals Washington’s annoyance at Europe’s failure to fund sufficient military capabilities.

Howard Wheeldon, an analyst based here, reckons that the pivot to the Asia-Pacific should not be interpreted as the U.S. turning its back on Europe.

“However, it is a timely reminder to Europe that in future, it will need to play a larger role defending itself and to take greater responsibility within NATO. Europe must then work closer together in terms of defense,” he said. “But that does not mean that Britain should think in terms of moving away from its closest natural ally.”

The parliamentary committee suggests that the U.S. may be increasingly unwilling to meet the costs of conflicts that primarily affect Europe. But, Aronsson said, there also is the question of whether the policy divergence over the Asia-Pacific between the U.K., Europe and the U.S. will be as great in the future as some think.

“There is a real effort at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in particular, but the Ministry of Defence as well, to think more strategically in terms of Asia and where the U.K. can support the wider U.S. strategic vision globally,” she said.

Notwithstanding recent setbacks with the likely loss of big fighter contracts in Japan and India, some of the British government’s thinking on Asia is manifesting itself on the defense industrial front.

The British government recently signed a research and technology accord with India, and Cameron’s visit to Japan next month could move along a deal to cooperate on the development of a number of weapons programs, now that Tokyo has lifted a long-time ban on defense exports.

Aronsson said the U.S. wants Europe to increase its focus on Asia as well.

“I know the U.S. is interested in seeing Europe take a more strategic view of Asia as a region,” she said. “They have spent a lot of time in Europe in an effort to try and generate strategic engagement, particularly at a European Union level.”

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