Britain has intensified its engagement with Asia-Pacific countries, in particular Southeast Asia. But London’s global interests will limit its ability to project a meaningful presence in the region.
In February 2020, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab went on a four-nation tour, going to Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. The tour followed the November 2019 opening of a United Kingdom (UK) Mission to ASEAN. Both events highlight Britain’s growing engagement with the Asia-Pacific, and reflect long-standing British interests in the region, in particular, Southeast Asia, and the wider strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific. Moreover, as Britain leaves the European Union, it is developing a renewed ‘Global Britain’ posture, that is outward-looking with global reach and influence, and ‘championing the rules-based system’. In this context, the UK is working to deepen its engagement with and presence in the region through enhanced economic, diplomatic and defence and security cooperation. The UK’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific reflects, as Geoffrey Till states, ‘the extent of today’s mutually beneficial linkages between the economies of the UK and the region’, together with the growing strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific.
The shifting of the global balance of power from Euro-Atlantic to Asia-Pacific, is highlighted particularly by the region’s growing economic significance. In geopolitical terms, the importance of the region is defined by the rise of China as a global power and the increasing significance of regional powers, particularly Australia, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. In this context, it warrants emphasising that British thinking and engagement with the Asia-Pacific should not be seen as an extension of the wider US-China relationship, in particular to mitigate the pressure on regional states to choose between Beijing or Washington. Moreover, the UK has longstanding connections to the region, highlighted by the presence of Commonwealth partners – Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore and Brunei, and security obligations via the Five Powers Defence Arrangements (FPDA), comprising Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and the UK.
The economic importance of the Asia-Pacific, including Southeast Asia as the fulcrum between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, is reflected in its growing military significance.
In economic terms, as John Hemmings and James Rogers explain, the South China Sea is ‘…the primary trade corridor’ connecting Europe and East Asia. Though the British Isles are still some distance from the waterway, they add that nearly 12 per cent of UK seaborne trade – or £97 billion in imports and exports – passes through the maritime areas annually. Six of the UK’s top 25 trading partners (Australia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and South Korea) are located within the Asia-Pacific. Southeast Asia is the UK’s third largest non-EU export market and third biggest market for defence exports. Further, the UK is considering accession to the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership following its withdrawal from the EU. It is forecast that by 2030, ASEAN will constitute the fourth largest ‘single market’ in the world behind the US, China and the EU.
The economic importance of the Asia-Pacific, including Southeast Asia as the fulcrum between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, is reflected in its growing military significance. The UK policy paper Mobilising, Modernising & Transforming Defence: A Report on the Modernising Defence Programme, published in December 2018, states that the Pacific region is ‘becoming ever more important’ to the UK. The document underscored the region’s ‘growing trade links and regional security issues that have global implications’ and emphasises the UK’s commitment to ‘stand up for the global rules, including freedom of navigation, that underpin our security and prosperity as an island trading nation’. Moreover, it states that the UK will seek to increase its presence in the region via bilateral relationships (for example, with Japan), the FPDA, and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network. This could involve an enhanced maritime presence, potentially including forward-basing in Singapore or Brunei, and building upon Britain’s existing presence, namely, the FPDA, the British Defence Staff and naval logistics facility in Singapore, and the Brunei-based jungle warfare school. The rationale for such a presence would be to highlight the UK’s commitment to the rules-based international order and the security of the global maritime trading system, in particular with respect to maintaining a dialogue with China, especially given the differences between the UK and China regarding freedom of navigation and sovereignty in the South China Sea.
However, there are significant constraints potentially limiting the UK’s ability to maintain a meaningful presence in the Asia-Pacific, namely, economic, the Russian challenge to regional and international security, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. That is, the UK again faces the challenge of having to balance the requirements of countering the Russian threat in the Euro-Atlantic against those of protecting its wider global interests and national policy intent to maintain the ability to project power and influence globally. In this, the issue of commitments versus resources will become even more pressing. In this regard, enhanced defence cooperation with particularly Australia and Singapore may be of particular value, alongside enhanced diplomatic and economic activities across the region. Given Britain’s fundamental interest in the global trading system, an interest shared with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific, including China, the forthcoming Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy will be critical to determining whether and how the UK is positioned to contribute to security in the Asia-Pacific.
James Bosbotinis is a freelance defence and international affairs analyst, specialising in maritime strategy and geopolitics.