Among the many gaffes made by Boris Johnson during his two-year stint as Britain’s foreign secretary, one of the most awkward was his recital of a Rudyard Kipling poem while attending an event at Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda.
Kipling’s poem, The Road to Mandalay, tells of a solider during the age of British colonization of Burma, as the country was then known. And as Johnson, who became Britain’s new prime minister yesterday, began muttering the opening stanza, the UK’s ambassador to Myanmar leant across and was heard whispering, “Not appropriate.”
Cultural insensitivity, however, might be the least the region’s concerns after Johnson won the ruling Conservative Party’s leadership election this week, and duly became prime minister, on the promise that he would lead Britain out of the European Union (EU) on October 31 “with or without a deal.”
Now in 10 Downing Street, he has just three months to avert a so-called “no-deal” Brexit, in which the UK would crash out of the EU without any future trade agreement, and would likely have to start trading globally on the World Trade Organization’s unenviable terms.
A “no-deal” Brexit would also mean that Britain is no longer be party to the EU’s preferential trade schemes – which grants exports from developing countries, like Cambodia and Myanmar, tariff free access to European markets – and the EU’s free trade deals, such as those signed this year with Singapore and Vietnam.
As many as 1.7 million people living in developing nations could descend into “extreme poverty” in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit, the German Development Institute, a think tank, reported in February.
Cambodia would be one of the world’s biggest losers, it noted. With the UK as Cambodia’s third largest export market, after Germany and the United States, Cambodia’s gross domestic product (GDP) could shrink by as much as 1%, while household consumption could fall by 1.4% and household incomes contract by 0.8%
Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines were also among the ten countries that could be most severely affected in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit, the research showed.
Most analysts, however, reckon that Johnson doesn’t have the power to impose a “no-deal” Brexit, as the British parliament would vote against the measure – and Johnson’s threat to simply close down parliament would result in a constitutional crisis unknown for centuries.
If correct, and a “no-deal” is not a possibility, Johnson’s premiership looks a little more sanguine for Southeast Asia and the wider region.
It was during his time as London mayor, between 2008 and 2016, that Johnson started to refer to a “global Britain,” an aphorism he later brought to the Foreign Office and will likely continue with as prime minister.
As Brexit negotiations were ongoing during his time as foreign secretary, the term became a sign of what Britain wanted post-Brexit. Britain would not only have to sign new bilateral trade deals with non-EU nations, Johnson also saw that Britain should play a more active role in global affairs, a belief he is also likely to bring to his new job.
The July 2017, Johnson visited Japan, Australia and New Zealand and proclaimed that Britain is “now going to be more committed to the Asia-Pacific region.” This came after a speech, in December 2016, in which he said the country’s military would be moving “back east of Suez,” a reference to Britain’s transfer of much of its armed forces from Asia to the Middle East in the 1960s.
Indeed, Britain has only one garrison left in the Asia-Pacific, in Brunei, a former colony. When defense officials spoke earlier this year of creating a new naval base somewhere in Asia, observers reckoned its eventual location would be in Brunei.
In July 2017, Johnson also gave permission for two new British aircraft carriers to be sent, at some point in the future, to the highly contested South China Sea for freedom of navigation exercises.
Johnson said at the time that the UK government supports “the rules-based international system,” a provocative nod towards China which has been quickly building military installations in contested areas of the waters and has rejected an international tribunal verdict against its wide-reaching claims.
“It is no longer 1840. There are no longer any British colonies in East Asia,” the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-run tabloid, responded sarcastically.
Johnson’s leadership campaign in the Conservative Party race was built on his optimism that, once out of the EU, Britain can maintain its standing in the world and improve trade relations with non-EU countries.
In Southeast Asia, it has maintained good relations with its former colonies, including Malaysia and Singapore, but has struggled to spark up trade with newer economies. Its bilateral trade with Vietnam, Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economy, is worth about half of Germany’s trade with the booming country, for instance.
All this could change after Brexit, after which Britain will need to secure quick free trade agreements with new partners. Many Southeast Asian nations would likely be keen to secure preferential terms with one of their top five export destinations.
In 2017, Liam Fox, Britain’s international trade secretary until being sacked this week by Johnson, visited the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore to drum up support for proposed free trade agreements, and there was even talk of deal with the entire 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc.
Such talks will have to wait until the UK formally leaves the EU, now expected to happen on October 31. Some experts, however, already doubt Britain’s ability to simply replicate existing EU trade deals.
There is already speculation that once the UK leaves the EU it will simply seek to copy the trade deals that the bloc has already signed, such as the FTAs with Singapore and Vietnam signed this year.
Arguably the most pressing question – and least clear – is how Johnson will handle China. As London mayor, he was keen for the capital to be seen as friendly to Chinese investors, businesses and students, and made numerous visits to Beijing to drum up commercial ties.
In an interview with a Chinese-language broadcaster this month, Johnson said his government would be “pro-China” and “very enthusiastic about the Belt and Road Initiative,” Beijing’s US$1 trillion global investment project.
“Don’t forget [we are] the most open international investment [destination], particularly [for] Chinese investment,” he stated, before noting that Britain was the first Western democracy to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
He also noted in the interview that Chinese firms are already heavily invested in the UK, for example in building a large nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point, in the west of Britain.
And with Brexit on the horizon, London will be keen to keep happy its fifth largest trading partner – and second largest after the US if the EU countries are removed from the list.
One early decision he will have to make, though, is what to do about Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant which is at the center of a global debate on whether it poses national security risks for other countries, as it stands accused of spying on behalf of the Chinese government.
In May, Gavin Williamson was sacked as defense secretary after allegedly leaking information from a top-level National Security Council meeting over Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s involvement in the country’s 5G network plans, an allegation that he “strenuously” denied.
The leaks were thought to have come after Theresa May, the outgoing prime minister, was advised by security officials to allow Huawei to supply “non-core” parts of the 5G network, which angered many Conservative MPs.
The British government agreed this month to postpone a decision. The US government is the loudest opponent of Huawei and has warned its allies not to allow the Chinese company any involvement in their own 5G networks. London said this month that it wasn’t “sensible” to make a decision on Huawei as long as the US government has concerns about the security risks.
Johnson was pressed on the issue during his campaign hustings, but was non-committal. The Guardian reported, however, that his “advisers had indicated he was likely to reverse the decision” to allow Huawei to supply equipment to Britain’s 5G infrastructure.