February 4, 2023

The UK will target a group of around two dozen mid-level countries for long-term diplomatic partnerships in what will mean a downward revision of human rights commitments as a precondition for close relations with the UK.

The new policy outlined in a speech by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is an attempt to set realistic ambitions and criteria for Britain’s future post-Brexit relations. It is an implicit admission that the phrase “global Britain”, coined by Boris Johnson, may have raised expectations that Britain’s diplomatic resources and stature cannot match.

The new thinking is the result of a study within the geostrategy department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In a trail ahead of his speech, the ministry said the UK will hope to forge close, long-term multi-dimensional partnerships with countries that share a “belief in sovereignty and territorial integrity, in free trade and in the value of an international rules-based order” . that has brought relative peace and prosperity to more people around the world than ever before.”

The criteria for some interpretations allow the UK to establish relationships with countries that are not necessarily democracies, but respect borders and do not pose a security threat to the UK.

Cleverly will say the new patient diplomatic relations will be forged in countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that are likely to have greater influence over the next 30 years, including some with which the UK has no previous close ties.

The tailor-made offers cover trade, diplomacy, technology, defence, cybersecurity, adaptation to the climate crisis and environmental protection. These will be supported by investment through British International Investment and the G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, an initiative designed to provide a rival source of funding to China’s.

The FCDO argument is that if the UK does not engage with these countries now, in a competitive diplomatic environment they are likely to be wooed by others and move further away from Western influence.

Cleverly’s predecessor, Liz Truss, spoke of forming a network of freedom that spanned the globe and pushed the boundaries of freedom, a phrase that implied a strong determination to defend democracy over authoritarianism. When asked how this goal could be combined with Britain’s support for the Gulf states, she argued that Britain could legitimately form alliances with such countries if they intended not to threaten the UK.

Speaking to Sophy Ridge on Sky on Sunday, Cleverly was challenged on how the UK’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia matched Riyadh’s use of public executions. He said the UK is highlighting very significant differences with Saudi Arabia on human rights, but added: “It is incredibly important that we maintain an ongoing bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia. Part of that includes trade, but also security, counter-terrorism.”

In the FCDO’s annual human rights report, released last week, the government outlined a range of Saudi human rights violations, but claimed that “the Saudis are really hungry for change” in areas “such as judicial reform, women’s rights and the death penalty.”

Yet Saudi Arabia had executed 148 people this year by the end of November, double the number for 2021. The Saudi human rights organization ALQST last week described “an extraordinary renewed crackdown on freedom of expression in the kingdom with a series of prison sentences.” for peaceful activities on social media”.

Slim also signaled a more pragmatic approach to China, refusing to repeat Rishi Sunak’s claim as a Conservative leadership candidate that China represented “the greatest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”. Sunak has now called China a systemic challenge, a phrase that gives the UK room to scrutinize Chinese investments in the UK more closely.

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