The Sunak Government and UK Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia

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The Sunak Government and UK Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia

Given his crowded agenda of domestic and foreign policy challenges, will the new British leader have much attention left for the region?

The Sunak Government and UK Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak chairs a cabinet meeting, October 26, 2022.

Credit: Twitter/Rishi Sunak

Last month, Rishi Sunak became the United Kingdom’s third prime minister of 2022. Sunak initially lost a Conservative leadership election battle to Liz Truss in September. Truss then resigned as prime minister after only 44 days in office after unveiling an economic plan of tax-cutting measures that unnerved financial markets and caused the pound to drop to its lowest level against the dollar for a decade. The leadership election in which Truss and Sunak went head-to-head was triggered in July following Boris Johnson’s resignation. This came after more than 50 members of the government resigned in protest due to his role in a string of domestic scandals.

Following his appointment, Sunak received congratulatory messages from several Southeast Asian leaders. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote to Sunak reminding him of their shared interests in a rules-based multilateral order and the need to uphold international law. He professed a desire to “work together to strengthen our longstanding and friendly bilateral relations.” Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob expressed similar optimism that his nation could work closely with the U.K. to “achieve the potential of the relationship between the two countries.” The general sentiment from Southeast Asia appears to be one of hope that the U.K. will remain an engaged partner in the region under its new leader.

Can Sunak live up to these expectations? The U.K. is experiencing unprecedented political upheaval, a cost-of-living crisis driven by rising energy costs, inflation, and supply chain issues. As the new prime minister, Sunak has the unenviable task of repairing the U.K. economy, calming the financial markets, and restoring the country’s trust in the Conservative Party. He must balance these domestic concerns with a foreign policy that maintains support for Ukraine, counters Russian aggression regionally, and responds to a variety of international security concerns including China’s rising military power in the Indo-Pacific.

The U.K.’s Indo-Pacific ‘Tilt’

Southeast Asia is of critical importance to the U.K., as explained in the government’s 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Citing a deep commitment to multilateralism and to strengthening institutions and the international order, the foreign policy strategy confirms that “the Indo-Pacific region matters to the U.K.: it is critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition.” As part of this strategy, London will “adapt to the regional balance of power and respect the interests of others” while seeking “to work with existing structures such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN].”

Since its publication, the government has wasted no time implementing this strategy. A September 2021 Joint Ministerial Declaration on Future Economic Cooperation between ASEAN and the U.K. identified several areas for future cooperation, including COVID-19 economic recovery, the preservation of open markets, and digital innovation. The U.K. formally applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade pact in February 2021. It then became an ASEAN Dialogue Partner in August of that year, opening the door for greater regional cooperation and shared funding initiatives.

In a show of regional power and influence, it dispatched the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and a carrier strike group on its first operational deployment in Asia and the contested waters of the South China Sea in April 2021. This followed the announcement of a new trilateral security partnership between Australia, the U.K. and the United States (AUKUS) that aims to preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN and Southeast Asia have responded positively to the U.K.’s overtures. The region is grappling with sluggish growth caused by COVID-19. British support for post-COVID-19 economic recovery is therefore welcome. Southeast Asia is also experiencing deteriorating stability resulting from geopolitical competition between the United States and China. For former Vietnamese ambassador to the EU Ton Nu Thi Ninh, a U.K. presence can contribute to regional peace and security through AUKUS. In her view, “the best moderation to any singular preeminence in the Indo-Pacific is to have several powers or power clusters engaged rationally and in concert with regional stakeholders, working for the common peace, security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.” According to a recent survey of elite public opinion in ASEAN, the region’s governments increasingly perceive the U.K. as a “preferred and trusted strategic partner” that can help it hedge against the uncertainties of the US-China strategic rivalry.

Challenges for the New Prime Minister

The new government will face challenges in maintaining this international standing and reassuring allies that the U.K. is still an active and engaged partner. Hoping to project an image of foreign policy continuity, Sunak has maintained key cabinet appointments, including foreign secretary and secretary of defence. It is also unlikely that Sunak will propose any major U-turn in foreign policy, particularly as it pertains to Southeast Asia. Sunak adopted a hawkish stance regarding China during the Conservative leadership election battle. He warned that China posed “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century.” In a conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden following his appointment, the two are reported to have discussed the challenges posed by China and the need for collaboration in the Indo-Pacific.

While this should ease any concerns from within Southeast Asia of a disengaged U.K., actions will speak louder than words. Southeast Asian states want to see a sustained U.K. economic, security, and political commitment to the region. Pressing economic domestic challenges have the potential to drain British time and resources. Sunak has already refused to commit to increases in defense spending that were promised by the Truss government. A hawkish stance on China may also be difficult to sustain considering the importance of U.K.-China trade post-Brexit. The U.K. will be keen to tap into opportunities that the Southeast Asian markets present. This works both ways, and the region’s states will want to know what London can do for them in return. The Sunak government will need to balance these expectations with those of the British public. Failure to do so could damage U.K. credibility in Southeast Asia indefinitely.