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Now that Britain has finally left the European Union, after years of rumination and wrangling, it’s time to see what the Conservative government means by a new “global Britain.” Perhaps a clue was the UK’s opening of a new mission to the ASEAN bloc in Jakarta on January 15, following the appointment of a dedicated UK ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in October.
As Prime Minister Boris Johnson promises to lead the biggest review of British foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, we will almost certainly see London take a closer interest in what is now referred to as the Indo-Pacific region. Last year, London introduced its “All of Asia” policy, which refocuses attention on Southeast Asia, and there is clearly interest in Whitehall to shift Britain’s focus away from areas like Africa and the Middle East to Asia, as I noted recently in Asia Times. Indeed, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s first overseas trip as minister last year was to Bangkok for an ASEAN ministerial meeting, and he will tour Asia once again this week.
“If Britain is to become the global player Boris Johnson wants it to be, then it has to engage more strategically in the Asia-Pacific,” Alexander Downer, chairman of Policy Exchange and a former Australian foreign minister, wrote in The Spectator last month
Britain has argued that it should become a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN once out of the EU, despite the Southeast Asian bloc having a moratorium on new partnerships, and to be given a seat at the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus. The latter should be a no-brainer, given Britain’s importance to security in the region. If the former is acceded, it would be a major public relations victory for London’s promise to build a truly “global Britain.”
But like Brussels before it, London now faces a dilemma when dealing with Southeast Asia: Does it focus on interactions through the ASEAN bloc, an often unyielding and unhelpful institution, or focus on bilaterals, developing closer relations with assiduous partners in the region?
The natural sources of Britain’s attention might be Thailand, the usual conduit between Southeast Asia and the West, or its former colonies, Malaysia and Singapore. Both these Southeast Asian states are part of the Five Power Defense Arrangements, along with the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and the UK has troops stationed in Singapore. It also has a military base in Brunei, another former colony, and last year was said to be planning to open a new base somewhere in the Asia-Pacific, probably Australia, which is keen on the idea.
London would be wise, however, also to look to Vietnam, which holds the ASEAN chair this year and, therefore, considerable leverage over the region. It also holds a rotating chair at the UN Security Council this year, which ought to allow British and Vietnamese diplomats more speaking time. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the UK-Vietnam strategic partnership, too. When the UK’s minister for Asia and the Pacific, Heather Wheeler, traveled to Hanoi after attending the opening of the new British mission to ASEAN last month, she stated: “We are committed to maintaining and strengthening our relationships with ASEAN, and Vietnam in particular.”
Britain now needs to sign relatively easy free-trade agreements as it struggles to secure more complicated ones with the EU and the US – and a trade deal with Vietnam ought to be straightforward and swift. The UK is thought to want to negotiate deals with Vietnam and Singapore along the lines of pacts the EU has already negotiated with them. Hanoi, too, is desperate to secure trade conditions with the UK for its export-driven economy, especially as Britain at the end of the year will no longer be part of the EU’s preferential trade schemes that Vietnam enjoys.
It would also be in Vietnam’s interest geopolitically if Britain plays a more active security role in the region. Next to France, it is the European country with the most engaged defense operations in the Asia-Pacific
It would also be in Vietnam’s interest geopolitically if Britain plays a more active security role in the region. Next to France, it is the European country with the most engaged defense operations in the Asia-Pacific. Moreover, it has taken more of an active role in the South China Sea situation in recent years, in which Vietnam is the loudest rival claimant to China in these waters. HMS Albion took part in a “freedom of navigation” operation near the disputed Paracel Islands in 2018, the first British warship deployed to the region in five years. Beijing called it a “provocative action.” The UK’s Ministry of Defense has also worked with the Vietnamese military to train its peacekeepers part of the UN Mission to South Sudan.
While Vietnam’s latest Defense White Paper, published last year, took a more confrontational approach to tensions with China, Hanoi is still determined to follow its decades-old policy of having as many friends as possible. Last year, for instance, Hanoi became the first Southeast Asian state to sign a security pact, a Framework Participation Agreement, with the EU. It also maintains Russia as a primary supplier of munitions, a relationship that dates back to the Cold War days. If Britain is to play a more active role in Southeast Asian affairs, especially in the security realm, Vietnam would be keen to have another country that wants to split the difference and find some middle way between the US and China in our New Cold War landscape.
Britain would also be wise to focus more on security relations with Vietnam. For starters, a closer alliance with Hanoi would give Britain a shortcut to the region’s most contested geopolitical issue, the South China Sea dispute, providing London with a chest-thumping demonstration of how a new “global Britain” is as much about security and values as trade deals.
It’s also becoming abundantly clear that the traditional ASEAN way of regional consensus and non-interference in the affairs of other member states cannot survive the US-China rivalry, which is dragging states into either Beijing’s or Washington’s spheres of influence. What is needed instead, many argue, is for one Southeast Asian state to grasp the mantle and become the architect of the region’s foreign policy, a role Indonesia played in the 1970s and ’80s. Indonesia, for many, should return to that position – but Jakarta is hesitant, despite being the lead drafter of ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific strategy last year. Singapore, another loud voice in the region, is also a candidate.
But so too is Vietnam, which is leading the chorus of those who are more skeptical about Beijing’s intentions in the region while also creating an emboldened place for itself in the international community. It was trusted to sit on the UN Security Council this year, and hosted the ill-fated peace talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year. London, if sensible, will sidle more closely to this rising voice in Asian politics.