Last week, the United Kingdom opened its new mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While the development was long expected, it nonetheless spotlighted Britain’s continued efforts to reshape its relationship with Southeast Asia and ASEAN amid wider domestic and regional developments.
As I have observed before in these pages, Britain has long played an important role in Southeast Asia dating back to its colonial past, and the country’s influence continues to be felt today in various areas including trade, education, and defense. But over the past few years, Britain has been looking to reinforce its ties with Southeast Asia and ASEAN as it prepares to leave the European Union.
One of the aspects of the U.K.’s involvement in Southeast Asia was the opening of a dedicated mission to ASEAN. Britain had indicated that the new mission would be opened following the appointment of a dedicated ambassador to ASEAN, as opposed to the post being held concurrently by the U.K. ambassador to Indonesia. And following the appointment of U.K. Ambassador to ASEAN Jon Lambe in October 2019, the mission was expected to be opened soon thereafter.
Last week, this aspect of the U.K.’s role in Southeast Asia was in the spotlight again with the opening of a new mission to ASEAN. The U.K. officially opened its mission to ASEAN in Jakarta on January 15, with officials in attendance including the U.K.’s minister for Asia and the Pacific, Heather Wheeler; the U.K. ambassador to Indonesia, Owen Jenkins; and Lambe.
The opening of the mission was framed as part of a wider effort to reinforce the U.K.’s ties with the region. As per The Jakarta Post, in her remarks during the event, Wheeler, who was on a scheduled visit to Southeast Asia that also included a stop in Vietnam, this year’s ASEAN chair, underscored the U.K.’s current areas of collaboration with regional states as well as opportunities for further cooperation. Additionally, after her trip to the region, back in London, Wheeler also hosted Southeast Asian ambassadors and high commissioners to discuss areas for cooperation within U.K.-ASEAN relations, noting that ASEAN would be a “key partner” for London after it leaves the EU at the end of the month.
To be sure, despite the opening of the mission, certain aspects regarding the future of Britain’s relationship with Southeast Asia and ASEAN still remain unclear. These include the shape of trading agreements that it is seeking with individual countries and its quest for a dialogue partnership of its own after moving out of the EU. There will also be wider developments expected in the U.K.’s ties with ASEAN and individual member states, be it Vietnam with the commemoration of 10 years of the UK-Vietnam strategic partnership or Britain’s evolving approach to key security issues such as the South China Sea.
Nonetheless, the development reinforced one aspect of the U.K.’s ongoing efforts to shape its post-Brexit relationship with Southeast Asia and ASEAN. As this process continues to take shape, how Britain manages the opportunities and challenges therein and how Southeast Asian states react in response will be closely watched.