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.
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.
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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.
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.
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Japan says scrambled fighter jets after Russian planes spotted
The country’s defence ministry says Russian ‘intelligence-gathering’ aircraft spotted near its coasts along the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan.
Japan scrambled fighter jets after spotting Russian “intelligence-gathering” aircraft off its coasts along the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan on Thursday, the country’s defence ministry has said.
One Russian aircraft travelled from Japan’s north down along part of its west coast, while the other took a similar route along the opposite coast and returned the same way, the Joint Staff office run under the defence ministry said in a brief statement.
“In response, fighters of the Air Self-Defence Force’s Northern Air Force and other units were scrambled,” it added.
There was no further information on the incident, which comes days after Japan hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the summit of Group of Seven (G7) – a grouping of rich nations – in Hiroshima city.
Japan has joined Western allies in sanctioning Moscow over its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and has warned of the threat posed by Russia.
Its latest security document, which once called for enhanced ties and cooperation with Russia, now warns that Moscow’s military posturing in Asia and cooperation with China are “a strong security concern”.
Last May, Chinese and Russian military jets carried out joint flights near Japan immediately after a meeting of the United States-led Quad grouping in Tokyo. India and Australia are other members of Quad.
And more recently, Moscow has carried out military exercises, including test-firing missiles, in the Sea of Japan.
Russia considers Japan to be a “hostile” country – a designation it shares with all European Union countries, the US and its allies, including the United Kingdom and Australia.
Tokyo had complex relations with Moscow before the invasion of Ukraine in February, and the two sides have yet to sign a post-World War II peace treaty.
Attempts to do so have been hampered by a long-running dispute over islands controlled by Russia, which calls them the Kurils.
France bans short-haul flights to cut carbon emissions
France has banned domestic short-haul flights where train alternatives exist, in a bid to cut carbon emissions.
The law came into force two years after lawmakers had voted to end routes where the same journey could be made by train in under two-and-a-half hours.
The ban all but rules out air travel between Paris and cities including Nantes, Lyon and Bordeaux, while connecting flights are unaffected.
Critics have described the latest measures as “symbolic bans”.
Laurent Donceel, interim head of industry group Airlines for Europe (A4E), told the AFP news agency that “banning these trips will only have minimal effects” on CO2 output.
He added that governments should instead support “real and significant solutions” to the issue.
Airlines around the world have been severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with website Flightradar24 reporting that the number of flights last year was down almost 42% from 2019.
The French government had faced calls to introduce even stricter rules.
France’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate, which was created by President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 and included 150 members of the public, had proposed scrapping plane journeys where train journeys of under four hours existed.
But this was reduced to two-and-a-half hours after objections from some regions, as well as the airline Air France-KLM.
French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir had earlier called on lawmakers to retain the four-hour limit.
“On average, the plane emits 77 times more CO2 per passenger than the train on these routes, even though the train is cheaper and the time lost is limited to 40 minutes,” it said.
It also called for “safeguards that [French national railway] SNCF will not seize the opportunity to artificially inflate its prices or degrade the quality of rail service”.
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