Last week, U.K. Foreign Minister Dominic Raab visited Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam in order to forge closer trade and security ties with the two countries and discuss future cooperation on a range of global challenges. Besides having high-level meetings with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, in addition to his foreign ministerial counterparts, Raab also met ASEAN Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi to reiterate Britain’s commitment as a new dialogue partner to the Southeast Asian bloc. On April 8, the U.K. also held a Troika Dialogue with ASEAN countries mainly to discuss the post-pandemic economic recovery, in which ASEAN officials sought more U.K. support for the region’s efforts to tackle the contagion.
This intensifying diplomatic engagement is part of the U.K.’s “Global Britain” agenda, formulated following its exit from the European Union, in which Southeast Asia looms as a logical focus.
The U.K. has a history of deep engagement with Southeast Asia, mainly resulting from the legacy of its role as an imperial power in Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, and other places. However, Britain’s approach to the region since 1945 has been characterized by a certain degree of vacillation. One oft-heard refrain within the policymaking community in Whitehall since the 2016 referendum on Brexit is the need for the U.K. to reorient its strategic focus towards the Indo-Pacific. This is tacit recognition of the geopolitical and economic weight that Asia will hold for the future of international politics and the global economy, and an effort by London to reinvigorate its historic position of influence and leverage in the region.
With the recent publication of the U.K.’s long-awaited integrated review of its foreign and defense policy, the British government is doubling down on making its “Indo-Pacific tilt” an integral part of its broader “Global Britain” agenda, and returning the country’s strategic focus to “east of Suez.” The latter phrase was first employed by Boris Johnson in 2016, during his tenure as foreign secretary, alluding to the Wilson government’s 1968 decision to withdraw British forces from the region.
The U.K. is already well-positioned to deepen its involvement in the security and military realm. It is a core member of the Five Power Defense Agreement (FPDA), a collective security arrangement involving Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, originally designed in 1971 to contain Indonesia’s destabilizing policies toward Malaysia. Membership in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, also affords the U.K. significant leverage in the region, especially in the context of the United States’ shift toward increased strategic competition with China.
The U.K.’s diplomatic interaction with Southeast Asia must be well calibrated, given that Washington’s increasingly competitive approach to relations with China has substantial implications for the U.K.’s strategic reorientation to the region. While London’s interest in the region is based largely on Britain’s own national interest, adopting a more confrontational approach in order to deepen its vaunted “special relationship” with Washington would be risky.
Since 2018, the U.K. has sent warships to the region to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) meant to deter Chinese adventurism, and next month the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier strike group will be dispatched on its first operational deployment to the Indo-Pacific as part of a multinational naval force. Further, discussions are ongoing with Japan over a potential U.K. military base in the country, which would further increase Britain’s role as a regional security actor.
The U.K. already possesses a springboard for increasing its power projection capabilities in the region, especially in Southeast Asia, by retaining a contingent of 1,000 personnel garrisoned in Brunei, which constitutes the only remaining permanent British military presence in the region. Additionally, the U.K. retains control over the British Indian Overseas Territory, including Diego Garcia, which serves as a joint U.S.-U.K. military facility located halfway between Tanzania and Indonesia. This provides the U.K. with the potential to play a vital role in any contingencies involving the waterways of Southeast Asia.
However, the U.K. will also face obstacles to its efforts at deepening regional engagement. London is eager to become an official dialogue partner to ASEAN, a position it previously held via membership in the EU. While the establishment of a diplomatic mission to the organization in early 2020 is a tangible signal of British interest in furthering its involvement in Southeast Asia, the Boris Johnson administration needs to take into consideration some geopolitical concerns.
A further stumbling block might be reluctance among ASEAN members to be caught up in great power competition between the U.S. and China. Engagement with the U.K. could be hampered if increased British regional involvement is perceived as potentially leading to entrapment in a conflict-spiral with China. This prospect has become increasingly vivid in recent months with escalating exchanges of sanctions between the West and China, related to alleged human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. On March 26, China imposed retaliatory sanctions on a wide variety of U.K. politicians, think tanks, and governmental bodies, compounding existing friction over British support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s movement so far has been able to apply this “non-confrontational” attitude very well, although most likely this will come under strain after London is enacted as an ASEAN dialogue partner.
Nonetheless, since the Brexit referendum, Britain has made strides to deepen its involvement with ASEAN across the full spectrum. Britain has several avenues to strengthen ties with the region, particularly to address Southeast Asian nations hit hard by the pandemic.
In the field of diplomacy, the U.K. established a dedicated Mission to ASEAN in November 2019, including the appointment of its first ambassador specifically designated to the bloc. The mission will work to develop several core areas of discussion that were emphasized in the Integrated Review, such as the forging of more regional trading networks and boosting the U.K.’s commercial presence. Britain can add some successes to its trading scorecard, having successfully concluded bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with Singapore and Vietnam in late 2020. The U.K.’s overall trade priority in the Indo-Pacific is inclusion into the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a constellation of 11 Pacific rim countries.
Despite the U.K.’s geographical distance from the CPTPP’s main area of operation, its preexisting security ties to the region – namely the FPDA and the Five Eyes alliance – and the fact that it already maintains FTAs with seven CPTPP members, with two more under negotiation, makes the country a somewhat natural partner, as Elly Darkin has argued. Accession to the CPTPP would also facilitate Britain’s efforts at bolstering ties with ASEAN by showing commitment to the region across multiple policy domains.
Also highlighted in the new Integrated Review was the U.K.’s determination to boost its soft power strategy through development assistance and scientific collaboration. Britain has provided over $385 million in development aid annually to Southeast Asia in recent years. It has also revitalized its Newton Fund by investing up to $132.5 million to support international science and innovations collaboration in the region. The penetration of soft power instruments should be prioritized due to the needs of ASEAN states’ to rebuild their economies and restrengthen their scientific-based public policies, both of which the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed to be lacking.
In conclusion, Southeast Asia offers abundant opportunities for the U.K. to advance its Global Britain agenda, and its engagement with the region will be a test of London’s ambition to reinvent itself post-Brexit and once again play a major role on the world stage. The successful outcome of the U.K. engagement with Southeast Asia will depend on how it manages to position itself as a “reliable” and “contributive” partner, while taking a less confrontational approach to addressing key geopolitical sensitivities.