Author: Frederick Kliem, RSIS
The last ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting on 24 April 2021 received plenty of attention over the question on how ASEAN should engage with Myanmar and its military administration. Also on the agenda, the question of UK engagement with the Southeast Asian bloc went comparatively unnoticed.
ASEAN accepted the United Kingdom’s application to become its 11th dialogue partner — the organisation’s most extensive form of third-party partnerships — to be finalised later this year, less than 12 months since the United Kingdom officially applied.
This significant development does not come as a total surprise. The United Kingdom is ASEAN’s 12th largest trading partner and sixth largest source of foreign direct investment. It inaugurated a dedicated mission to ASEAN in 2019, demonstrating how British soft power in Southeast Asia exceeds that of any other European nation. More than 40 per cent of ASEAN citizens living in Europe reside in the United Kingdom, and 67 per cent of European citizens in ASEAN are British.
The United Kingdom is the most attractive European education destination for ASEAN citizens. The country’s reputation and appeal, based on close historic, diplomatic and civil society ties with Southeast Asian nations, bolstered universal ASEAN support for its partnership application.
‘Global Britain’ is the new label that symbolises London’s keen interest to both reinvent itself post-Brexit and assume a greater role on the global stage. Its interest in Southeast Asia reflects the region’s growing economic and geopolitical importance as well as the United Kingdom’s quest to revive its historic influence in Asia.
While ‘Global Britain’ is occasionally ridiculed in the European Union, London is making tangible headway in re-establishing itself as an independent global actor. The recent ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ by the UK Cabinet Office puts specific emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and the now achieved goal of becoming an ASEAN dialogue partner. The United Kingdom is the only European nation to achieve this feat besides the European Union itself.
The United Kingdom is also signing an ever-growing network of free trade agreements in the region, including with important economies such as Singapore and Vietnam. It is also seeking admission to the regional Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a promising diplomatic and trade endeavour for a country looking to re-engage with the region but which predominately trades with Europe and North America.
British ‘COVID-19 diplomacy’ has manifested in form of a UK–ASEAN Troika Dialogue, a statement spanning pandemic management, regional economic recovery and even climate change.
The United Kingdom is a founding member of the 1971 Five Power Defence Arrangements — Asia’s only collective security arrangement — and maintains a permanent military presence in Brunei and Singapore. The Royal Navy is one of only three European navies that can theoretically maintain a continuous regional presence, and the new UK aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will soon lead a carrier strike group through the disputed South China Sea. The United Kingdom is the only European country to have ever conducted a freedom of navigation operation in these waters, engaging with one of ASEAN’s greatest security concerns. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace put it as ‘flying the flag for Global Britain’.
By becoming an ASEAN dialogue partner, London stands to gain status and access to the highest echelons of regional multilateralism and defence diplomacy. Dialogue partnership with ASEAN is a precondition for joining Asia’s primary strategic dialogue, the East Asia Summit. London can also make a strong case for attending the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, likely leapfrogging fellow aspirant France in the process. Unlike the European Union, the United Kingdom will be able to contribute hard power to the maintenance of security interests in the region, albeit within its comparatively limited means.
Engaging with Southeast Asia and becoming an ASEAN dialogue partner is an excellent opportunity for London to substantiate the concept of ‘Global Britain’. It is no coincidence that London’s increasingly frequent visits to the region were kicked off by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s first overseas visit to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. And despite ASEAN’s excellent relations with the European Union, dealing with a sovereign state comes more naturally to an organisation built on inter-governmentalism.
Although ASEAN leaders have accepted the United Kingdom’s application for dialogue partner status, building closer ties might become a messy process, especially given ASEAN has had a moratorium on dialogue partner extensions since the late 1990s. There is unlikely to be support for lifting it so the United Kingdom can jump the long queue of other hopeful applicants. Still, some members may argue for expediting the United Kingdom’s dialogue partner status on the basis that it indirectly held the position through its former EU membership.
Either way, engagement with ASEAN and Southeast Asia will be the first true test of ‘Global Britain’. London must show it can be a reliable and constructive partner to ASEAN and the United States, while performing a delicate balancing act between pushing back against and preserving its relationship with China. How this is going to be achieved remains unclear.
It is uncertain whether London will be able to muster the necessary resources to expand and sustain its regional presence. Despite an Indo-Pacific tilt, Russia remains the most acute threat to Europe and the United Kingdom. UK NATO commitments and E-3 cooperation with Germany and France closer to home will always take priority over the ‘Far East’.
Frederick Kliem is a Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.