Last night, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab arrived in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, the first stop on a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia designed to further the U.K.’s recent “Indo-Pacific tilt.”
Raab was scheduled to hold talks with Vietnamese officials and to speak at an event held by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), before flying on to Cambodia and Singapore.
“Just landed in #Vietnam at the start of a visit to South-East Asia visit to discuss the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt,” Raab tweeted on arrival in Hanoi. He added that he was “looking forward to discussing trade, security and tackling challenges such as climate change, COVID-19 & serious organized crime.”
While a meeting with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen was canceled after the leader was exposed to COVID-19 and entered quarantine as a precaution, Raab will meet with his counterpart Prak Sokhonn and other officials. He will also pay visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Documentation Center of Cambodia, which researches the murderous 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge.
In a statement, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry said it hoped the visit would strengthen bilateral ties, “and be another step forward in multilateral cooperation within the ASEAN framework.”
Raab will then move on to Singapore, where is set where he is to meet with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and business leaders.
As Raab suggested in his tweet, the trip reflects a broad British reengagement with Asia, as part of London’s attempt to remake itself as a buccaneering mercantile powerhouse under the rubric of “Global Britain.”
The U.K. is seeking to become a dialogue partner of the 10-member ASEAN bloc, and also has ambitions of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact that was negotiated by former U.S. President Barack Obama. In January, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss told the BBC, “In future it’s going to be Asia-Pacific countries in particular where the big markets are, where growing middle-class markets are, for British products.”
As the Associated Press noted, the visit comes after Britain announced the broad outlines of a free trade deal with Australia, the first that London has negotiated from scratch since its withdrawal from the European Union. This came after the U.K. brokered free trade agreements with Singapore and Vietnam at the end of last year, part of what the government describes as a strategy of forming “a network of trade agreements with dynamic economies far beyond Europe, making the U.K. a hub for services and digital trade.” This likely explains the reasons for Raab’s trip to the two nations this week, while there has also been talk of a free trade pact between Phnom Penh and London. Raab has previously described post-Brexit U.K. as “energetic champions of free and open trade.”
The U.K.’s economic turn toward Asia has naturally also involved an increasing strategic focus on the region. The government’s recent Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy recommended that the U.K. “tilt” its focus toward the “Indo-Pacific” region in response to China’s “increasing international assertiveness.” The review pledged the U.K. to “pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific in support of shared prosperity and regional stability, with stronger diplomatic and trading ties.”
As part of this push, the U.K. last month dispatched a strike group led by the Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier the HMS Queen Elizabeth on a 28-week deployment that will take it through the disputed South China Sea. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the deployment is not focused on any one country, the clear subtext of the deployment is China: in particular its increasing maritime assertiveness.
Whether or not the U.K. fulfills the promises of “Global Britain” – and there is more than a puff of hot air and self-congratulation about the enterprise – its increased engagement with Southeast Asia is likely to be welcomed warmly, if discreetly, in the region’s capitals.
On the one hand, many Southeast Asian governments are nervous and wary about the potential for the escalation of tensions between China and Western powers in the South China Sea and elsewhere. On the other, in a region where diversity is the key to a healthy diet of foreign relations, many nations will no doubt position themselves to benefit greatly from increased strategic and economic ties with the United Kingdom.