Sunak’s naivety and Britain’s foreign policy | By Dr Imran Khalid

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Sunak’s naivety and Britain’s foreign policy

RISHI Sunak, after his abrupt entry into 10 Downing Street as new British Prime Minister, was not lucky enough to enjoy any honeymoon period.

A plethora of massive problems at domestic front as well as in the domain of foreign affairs can actually squeeze even the most experienced premiers, whereas Sunak is still considered to be “Britain’s lesser known” Prime Minister.

Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who had the experience of managing the diplomatic affairs as Foreign Secretaries before becoming the Premiers, Sunak has an altogether different background and has no direct experience outside of financial markets on the international stage of geopolitics. So he has advantages as well as equal disadvantages for this handicap in his curriculum vitae.

One key differential advantage, because of his track record as the Chancellor of Exchequer, could be the probability of him being less ideological and more pragmatic in running the British foreign policy.

“Robust pragmatism” is the term Sunak used to describe his foreign policy vision for Britain. The atypical circumstances in which he has been propelled to the seat of British Prime Minister has made Rishi Sunak vulnerable to a lot of pressure from inside the Conservative Party.

Lack of direction is quite visible ever since he took charge as the British PM; be it the cost-of-living crisis or growing tension with China in the Indo-Pacific, he is struggling to find a direction. Some of his critics in the media are even more harsh in their observation that “his only mission being to survive another day in office.”

A sense of managed decline is quite visible in Sunak’s style of management these days. But his inexperience in the sphere of foreign policy was blatantly exposed in the traditional speech delivered last month at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London’s Guildhall.

British Prime Ministers’ annual speech in the heart of the City of London is customarily focused on foreign policy. So did Rishi Sunak. But his speech, mostly adorned with the “copy & paste” scraps from his predecessors, was a rather dull exercise that failed to attract any appreciation from any quarters at home or abroad.

There was nothing new in his speech: support for Ukraine, China threat, Brexit and Indo-Pacific security were the main topics that were broached by him. All the routine stuff that was expected from any British Prime Minister at this time.

However, one country was conspicuously given less time and attention by Sunak in his Guildhall speech – the United States of America.

There was no incantation of the extraordinary US-UK relationship, and no mention of the US-UK duo spearheading the western liberal values and democracy.

In fact, Australia was more mentioned with reference to the Indo-Pacific power equilibrium than the US. It is quite unusual for any British PM to ‘ignore’ its chromic and trusted ally like this in such an important annual sermon that outlines the contour of British foreign policy.

No apparent reason can be blamed for such a flagrant omission on the part of Rishi Sunak, except his naiveness.

Prime Minister Sunak is also well aware of his naivety in the sphere of foreign policy, and he is trying to compensate for this by projecting himself hyperactive and over-aggressive in at least two important foreign policy matters: Ukraine war and China threat.

Boris Johnson is worshiped like a national hero in Ukraine because of his inordinately munificent support to Ukraine after the Russian attack.

President Volodymyr Zelensky was the most stressed person when Boris Johnson was compelled to leave Downing Street. He was very much concerned about the continuation of the British financial and military to Ukraine after the departure of Boris Johnson. .

Probably, to overshadow Boris mania sweeping Ukraine, Rishi Sunak is also trying to be more Ukraine-centric than his former boss. Sunak’s first official foreign trip was to Kyiv to reassure Britain’s continued commitment to Ukraine despite the change in leadership.

Similarly, on the question of China’s growing economic and military clout in the global arena, Sunak is also trying to appear “super China-hawk” because of continuous criticism by his fellow party-men against his apparent “softness” towards China. But setting the course for British-China policy comes at a very sensitive time.

Although in his Guildhall speech Sunak expressed his willingness to engage with China, stating that Britain could not “simply ignore China’s significance in the world affairs to global economic stability or issues like climate change,” but he also talked about “sharpening competition” with China.

He can’t afford to make a softer line on China because of the internal politics of the Conservative Party, which has gradually become more China-sceptic in recent times.

Conservative With the formation of the hawkish China Research Group by the Conservative Party as a replica of the European Research Group, which advocated for a hard Brexit, Rishi Sunak has no option but to go with the anti-China wave.

Sensing this anti-China vogue within the Conservative Party, in his foreign policy speech he said that the “so-called golden era” in Sino-UK relations was over and, more generally, in his first foreign policy speech, Sunak rather snobbishly declared that the “so-called golden era” in Sino-UK relations was over. He also made it clear that his preference is “robust pragmatism” not “grand rhetoric”.

When Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss were fighting a duel to win the leadership of the Conservative Party, they were indulged in a frantic competition of China-bashing to prove themselves as a bigger China hawk to lure the Tories.

“For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions.

I will change this on Day 1 as Prime Minister,” is how Sunak bragged while campaigning for the leadership of the Conservative Party leadership.

Sunak’s other attention is the Indo-Pacific region – again in the context of growing China’s influence there – but he needs to apply restraints to his over-ambitious anti-China drive. Alongside China and Russia, Sunak also made it clear that building strong ties in Europe will be his priority.

Sunak has mounting challenges at home: the prevailing upheaval inside the Conservative Party, a cost-of-living crisis, inflation with skyrocketing energy prices, and supply chain issues.

His main attention will certainly be on repairing the debilitating economy, taming the financial markets and – more than anything else – restoring public trust in the Conservative Party.

He needs to tread carefully in the domain of foreign policy. He is still naïve in this domain.
—The writer is political analyst, based in Karachi.