As Britain prepares to leave the European Union following the Brexit referendum held in 2016, it has sought to strengthen its relationships with key countries, including those in the Asia-Pacific. As part of that effort, the UK has been looking to boost its ties with Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) across several realms over the past few years.
The Diplomat’s senior editor, Prashanth Parameswaran, recently spoke to Mark Field, the Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific at the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office, about the state of London’s efforts to strengthen relations with ASEAN as well as its future plans in this regard. The conversation came in the midst of Field’s recent trip to the region from November 7-11, with a focus on advancing UK-ASEAN ties during a key stop in Singapore, which holds the rotating ASEAN chairmanship this year. An edited version of that interview follows.
The Diplomat: It’s been over two years since the original Brexit referendum was held. How would you assess the UK’s efforts to date to recalibrate its relationship with ASEAN thus far post-Brexit?
Mark Field: It is important to begin by emphasizing that the UK already has deep and strong ties with countries across Southeast Asia. We acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in South East Asia in 2012. UK-ASEAN trade is worth £36.5 billion ($47.16 billion), with real potential for further growth, and £23 billion a year of foreign direct investment (FDI) flows from the UK to ASEAN, more than from either France or Germany. In the field of education, we see more than 42,000 students from Southeast Asia attending UK universities each year and are contributing up to £18 million per year for scientific partnerships in South East Asia. UK government programs in a diverse range of areas will total around £680 million up to 2020. And these are just a few examples of our burgeoning relationship.
As the UK leaves the European Union (EU), we are determined to build on these strong foundations and forge a new, dynamic and ambitious partnership with ASEAN.
Of the countries within ASEAN, which of them have been particularly keen or responsive in terms of advancing ties with the UK? Are there any particular initiatives thus far that are especially notable within this context?
I have had the privilege of visiting all ten ASEAN capitals in the last year, and have had a universally positive response when I have raised the UK’s desire to deepen ties with ASEAN as a bloc. I believe there is broad recognition of the UK’s commitment to and engagement with the region, and enthusiasm about what we can achieve together through a new partnership.
Despite its advances, ASEAN and Southeast Asia continues to face its share of challenges, including the rise of populism in some countries, intraregional disputes, and rising geopolitical competition among major powers. What is the UK’s assessment of where ASEAN as an institution and Southeast Asia as a region stand today?
ASEAN sits at the center of Asian multilateralism, acting as the linchpin for regional groupings, including the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. These are immensely important fora for constructive discussion on the regional challenges to which you refer.
Fundamentally, ASEAN has kept the peace and promoted Southeast Asia’s impressive economic growth for many decades. We strongly support ASEAN’s central role in regional affairs, and have no doubt this will continue. This is why we look forward to the UK’s relationship with ASEAN becoming stronger in the coming years.
Singapore is a significant country within Southeast Asia, and it has been chairing ASEAN this year. How has the UK’s relationship with Singapore been evolving thus far, and what is the UK’s assessment of its chairmanship and ASEAN’s development this year?
Singapore is an extremely important partner for the UK, and I’m pleased to say that our relationship goes from strength to strength. I saw this again during my latest visit to the country on November 8. I am delighted that next year we will mark the bicentenary of modern Singapore with a UK-Singapore Partnership for the Future. Our two prime ministers agreed this in April 2018, and the partnership will underpin intensified cooperation across a range of important areas from cybersecurity to education.
Singapore’s chairmanship of ASEAN this year has further highlighted the strong areas of common interest that unite the UK and ASEAN. Singapore’s focus on cyber issues and smart cities plays directly to key UK strengths. These are areas where we expect to work closely together in the future.
One of the key points that the UK has been emphasizing is the challenges posed to a rules-based international order that need to be confronted. What is the UK doing on this front and how does this tie into its relationship with ASEAN and Southeast Asia?
You are absolutely right that a key foreign policy priority for the UK is to uphold and strengthen the Rules Based International Order. You will have seen this in our role as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), acting in response to regional and global threats to security such as the situation on the Korean Peninsula, in our support for World Trade Organization (WTO) modernization and reform, and our efforts to strengthen the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
On all these issues, ASEAN members collectively and individually have an important role to play. We look forward to welcoming Indonesia onto the Security Council in January, where they will be a vital voice for the region in these challenging times. And we will continue to work with our partners across ASEAN to reinforce the rules-based system that is essential for global peace and security.
Officials have suggested that there could be more initiatives forthcoming from the UK in terms of its ties with ASEAN. Are there any in particular that observers should be watching for in 2019 and beyond?
We announced our intention to establish a new, dedicated UK Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta on October 31 this year, and we expect this new Mission to be up and running in 2019. The UK’s Ambassador to ASEAN and their team will play an instrumental role in deepening the UK’s ties with the organization and its Member States and defining a strong new partnership with the bloc as we leave the EU. The announcement was an important signal of our commitment to the relationship.
The number of visits to Southeast Asia by UK ministers has also increased significantly in recent years. Along with my own visits to ASEAN countries, 17 UK ministers visited the region in 2017 alone. I would expect the frequency of bilateral engagement in both directions to continue to increase in 2019, and to see us making progress towards an ambitious new partnership to help us pursue our many shared interests.