The United Kingdom, Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’
Photo Source: Royal Navy
In recent years the United Kingdom has significantly enhanced its engagement with Southeast Asian countries, both individually and multilaterally. The Coalition Government headed by Prime Minister David Cameron took the first steps in this regard. Following the 2016 referendum decision to exit the European Union, more systematic efforts ensued by the government of Theresa May with reference to ‘Global Britain’, not least in terms of an ‘All of Asia’ policy that included a focus on Southeast Asia.
Although the UK’s renewed interest in Southeast Asia was prompted initially by the economic downturn in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis and then reinforced by Brexit, Britain to some observers may have seemed particularly interested in re-establishing a naval presence even in parts of the Western Pacific. Serving as Foreign Secretary at the time, Boris Johnson welcomed in late 2016 the UK’s return to a basing strategy ‘East of Suez’. A year later, he also suggested that the UK’s new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, would sail through the Malacca Strait on one of the first missions. When Britain then managed a near-continuous naval presence in Southeast and the wider East Asia-Pacific in 2018, questions surfaced both about the UK’s motivations and the sustainability of its military presence in the region.
Significantly, recent British policy towards Southeast Asia has been about much more than re-establishing a greater or more persistent naval presence. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has overseen Britain’s formal bids for individual dialogue partner status with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and for accession negotiations to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the membership of which includes four Southeast Asian countries.
To boost the UK’s relations with ASEAN countries and the wider region, London appointed a dedicated, resident Ambassador to ASEAN in November 2019, in addition to the prior appointment in June 2018 of a regional trade commissioner for Asia-Pacific. Based on the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, a Singapore-based British Defence Staff Asia-Pacific had also been created in 2016. In addition, UK ministers have regularly visited the region.
This increased focus on Southeast Asia has resulted not only in the UK being able to demonstrate its commitment to ASEAN as a whole; several bilateral relationships with Southeast Asian countries have also been strengthened. For instance, consonant with its strong interest in deeper trade relations, Britain agreed trade deals with Singapore and Vietnam. In addition, the UK has explored the possibility for deeper economic relations with regional states such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. In relation to security and defence cooperation, London and Manila agreed upon an MoU on defence cooperation in 2017 that has paved the way for limited joint training and future defence procurement.
But there have been various other angles of growing cooperation. With respect to COVID-19, for instance, the UK committed to support ASEAN in achieving a sustainable recovery. Climate change has also been a key topic for dialogue with the region. As such, the UK has embraced a multi-dimensional approach towards Southeast Asia, which has also appealed to Southeast Asian governments valuing wide-ranging collaboration. In April 2021, ASEAN leaders endorsed the recommendation of the ASEAN Secretariat to accept the UK’s application for full dialogue partner status by the forthcoming 54th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting/Post Ministerial Conferences.
UK thinking about future relations with Southeast Asia has recently taken place within the context of Britain opting for an Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, which has been reaffirmed in the Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy that was published in March 2021. The IR indeed clarifies that although the UK will remain primarily focused on the Euro-Atlantic region, it is Britain’s ambition to become ‘the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence in support of mutually-beneficial trade, shared security and values’ in the Indo Pacific by 2030. Focused on these three key rationales for deeper engagement, the IR suggests that when it comes to Southeast Asia the UK will aim, among other, to explore further economic opportunities and deeper partnerships (not least in science and technology), strengthen defence and security cooperation, help build capacity on cyber security, cooperate on climate change and other transnational challenges, and promote the UK’s ‘force for good’ agenda.
While the IR thus underlines Britain’s interest in a multifaceted approach to the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia, a continued focus on security and defence is unsurprising. Freedom of navigation, which is considered ‘essential’ to the UK’s national interests, remains high on the agenda. However, the UK is not only interested in maintaining major aspects of the existing international order, such as in relation to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As the Integrated Review puts it, it is also bent on ‘shaping the open international order of the future’. This relates in part to allowing open economies and societies to thriveand the establishment of new norms in key areas such as cyberspace. In this regard, the Indo-Pacific is also seen as a contested region, with China viewed as a ‘systemic competitor’.
Prevalent security concerns are also prompting the UK to reinforce its defence engagement with countries in the Indo-Pacific, including in the ASEAN region. Joined by the USS The Sullivans, a guided missile destroyer, and the Dutch air defence frigate HNLMS Evertsen, HMS Queen Elizabeth will soon lead a carrier strike group to the region that will pass through the South China Sea. To achieve the goal of ‘a more proactive, forward deployed, persistent presence’ in the region, the UK is also planning for an offshore patrol vessel to be deployed ‘East of Suez’ from 2021, possibly in Southeast Asia. A littoral response group deployed to the Indian Ocean is expected to follow from 2023. This important but limited maritime presence would in future also be complemented by further future episodic deployments of a carrier strike group. Significantly, these deployments should facilitate a bigger UK contribution to the Five Power Defence Arrangements (due to commemorate the grouping’s 50th anniversary this year), foster a closer defence cooperation with member states of ASEAN, and reinforce partnerships with other Indo-Pacific states, not least Japan – the UK’s closest Asian regional security partner.
Though there have been past concerns and doubts in parts of Southeast Asia about the UK not having the political will to develop or reinforce deeper broad-based engagement with the region over a longer time span, such anxieties would appear to have been misplaced. The region does have a visible and important place in Britain’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, for economic, security, and values-related reasons. Significantly, the ‘tilt’ also seems sustainable, not only from a British perspective. Indeed, Southeast Asian governments would presumably not have agreed to confer dialogue partner status to the UK if they were not convinced that on balance Britain will be able to sustain and contribute positively to ASEAN’s shared agenda of community and capacity building, and its ongoing search for security and prosperity. With both the UK and ASEAN thus invested, we should expect a larger role for Britain as a useful partner in the ASEAN region in the years ahead.
Jürgen Haacke is Associate Professor in International Relations at the London School of Economics & Political Science.