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The current Western preoccupation is the relationship with China. What are the Chinese giant’s true intentions as its networks snake through every continent and into the heart of Europe and of the British economy? Is it friend or foe, and how should we react?

Much less attention gets given to a far bigger trans-continental network in which, more by accident of history rather than blueprint design or strategy, Britain happens to be deeply embedded – the fifty-three nation Commonwealth of 2.4 billion people.

The reason analysts and commentators find it so hard to focus on the modern Commonwealth is that nothing like this has ever existed before. This is not the old British Empire, not the British Commonwealth of the last century, not some kind of hierarchy with Britain at its hub or centre, not remotely comparable to most other multinational or supranational structures, such as the EU, and not even primarily a conventional intergovernmental organisation.

In fact, in its modern form, it is almost entirely a product of the digital age of connectivity and the communications revolution. Measuring it by the old standards of trade and investment flows, or conventional diplomatic relations between governments, fails to show what is happening and where its enormous potential lies.

The nature of international trade and business has now changed fundamentally, with services, knowledge products and data flows rivalling traditional physical commerce. This now puts a premium on soft power relationships, such as educational and cultural networks, common working language, agreed business standards, common law procedures, tight cooperation in science, medicine and technology, and a thousand other familiarising links which trade statistics fail to pick up.

The British establishment has been dismally slow to perceive this transformation, still half convinced that its main trade interests lie in shipping goods to Europe and America, with the rest of the world as an afterthought. This would not matter if the old twentieth century view of the Commonwealth nations, as a string of low income societies, politically immature and in need of assistance from time to time under royal patronage, was still even vaguely accurate.

But this picture could now be hardly further from the truth. The Commonwealth today includes a dozen of the fastest growing economies in the world and the largest prospective middle-income markets of all times. Many of them are now part of a new Asia: of increasingly converging business structures and rising global impact. Whether or not they are on good terms with the biggest of all, China, their economies are becoming steadily more interwoven as they look eastwards rather than to the West.

The Asian Development Bank estimates that of the $30 trillion of consumption growth in world markets due between now and 2030, a mere £1 trillion will come from the Western economies. In 1990, more than 60% of the people of East Asia lived in extreme poverty. As of 2018, that proportion had dropped to 3%.

Of course, today’s Commonwealth, has its patchwork of rich and poor. This pattern, too, may be changing fast as nations like Bangladesh or Kenya move up into digital and online maturity at speeds which seemed impossible only a decade ago. Certainly, this still leaves a long tail of smaller states needing help and support of the most tailored kind, not least in combatting environmental and climate challenges which come in many different forms. This is precisely the kind of assistance that the Commonwealth, and Britain in particular, can provide, in more focussed forms than grandiose UN programmes.

As British connections with the rest of neighbouring Europe are re-ordered, and as the bedrock relationship with the United States starts looking less reliable, the old jibe about Britain being left without a role again begins to be heard. Yet a nation recovering from the divisive trauma of Brexit badly needs a story and a purpose as it seeks to re-position itself in the new global power pattern.

Inside today’s Commonwealth system, Britain can now find a dual new role, one part concerned with survival, and the other with national direction and purpose.

The markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America, once called the developing world but now acquiring a new status and momentum, are the ones in which Britain must succeed to survive and to which our whole economy must be regeared. And the struggling smaller island and coastal states of the Commonwealth, and the hundreds of millions still without clean water, sanitation or electricity, present the forum in which Britain can exercise its worldwide duties, pour out its talent and resources, and fulfil its global mission.

Somehow the policymakers of Britain must shake off their old, Western-oriented mindset and understand where the new priorities now lie. It has taken them a long time to get their heads round this completely new situation, with the penny beginning to drop in many official quarters only when confronted by Brexit. Some have still failed to grasp what has changed.

The new building blocks of Britain’s twenty-first century strategy reset are there in front of us and ready to be assembled. First, intensified but new kinds of trade and security links with a changing Europe. Second, much deeper engagement, country by country with the surging powers of Asia. Third, new links of all kinds and at many levels, with awakening Africa and the Americas.

Now comes the need for clever new architecture based on new visions and insights. In many ways India, the world’s biggest democracy, with half the Commonwealth’s population and now with a larger economy than Britain, is the key to the new situation. Trade itself is only one part of the story. Linking Britain’s big aid budget more closely to our new interests is another. Security, cyber relations and defence are all just as much part of the networking agenda, as well as soft power links of every kind.

Soft, hard and smart power must be woven together and projected with new agility and imagination. For instance, the time may well be approaching when global presence on the high seas may best be organised through joint Commonwealth naval power in Commonwealth war-and-peace ships

The Commonwealth network is one of the entreés to this altered world, a precious and obvious gateway to be opened wide. Britain must return to its Commonwealth family and friends in a spirit of respect and some contrition after decades of disregard and neglect. Nations we used to think we were teaching now have much to teach us.

The face of the future, to use the Queen’s own phrase about the Commonwealth, now confronts us. It is one which we must recognise and smile upon with as much warmth, friendship, inspiration and foresight as we can muster

Lord Howell of Guildford is the Chairman of the International Relations Committee and the President of the Royal Commonwealth Society. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Identity crisis?. views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.