James Cleverly, UK foreign secretary, will on Monday launch what he will call “patient diplomacy”, intended to build stronger long-term British relations with fast-growing countries such as Brazil, Kenya, South Africa and Indonesia.
In his first big speech as foreign secretary, Cleverly will promise to build ties with countries which are not traditionally strong partners of the UK, hoping to counter the transactional support offered by Russia and China.
Cleverly’s allies concede that Britain cannot match the financial firepower of Beijing, but argue that the UK can offer mutually beneficial partnerships to countries which share a belief in democracy, free trade and the rule of law.
“The UK offer will be tailored to their needs and UK strengths, spanning trade, investment, development, defence, technology and climate change,” Cleverly will say in a speech at the Foreign Office.
“This will be backed up with a reliable source of infrastructure investment. So I’m determined that we will make investments of faith in the countries that will shape the world’s future.”
Cleverly calls it “patient diplomacy” and his colleagues admit that Britain has traditionally focused its attention on its key allies or, conversely, countries like China or Russia that pose some kind of threat.
“There’s a whole load of countries in the middle which we need to focus on more,” said one ally of Cleverly.
The foreign secretary last week visited Kenya and Ethiopia, declaring that Africa “has always been part of my life” — his late mother travelled from Sierra Leone to London to train as a nurse.
But he said that his trip to sub-Saharan Africa recognised that the region would be an important centre of growth in the future. He wants the Foreign Office to step up its engagement with countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Critics will argue that Britain’s recent cut in its aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product undermines Cleverly’s objective.
But the foreign secretary believes influence can be exerted in other ways as Britain and other western countries seek to present more attractive offers to the ones presented by Beijing and Moscow, which usually link economic help with stringent political demands.
The foreign secretary told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme that Britain would maintain a close relationship with “incredibly important” Saudi Arabia, in spite of “very, very deep differences” on issues like the death penalty.
Meanwhile, Cleverly is also trying to improve relations with the EU, notably by trying to resolve the corrosive dispute over trading relations in Northern Ireland.
Cleverly’s allies hope that the row over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol can be negotiated early in 2023, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended years of conflict in the region.
A controversial bill that would allow Britain to unilaterally over-rule the protocol — described by EU diplomats as “a gun to the head” — is currently in the House of Lords after passing its House of Commons stages.
Downing Street denied that the bill had been “paused”, but conceded that it would not be debated again in the upper house until after Christmas.
Negotiators in London and Brussels are hoping that the better atmospherics between the two sides in recent weeks will create the conditions for a deal, although significant differences remain.