The race for the leadership of the Conservative Party has thrown up few clues about London’s approach to ASEAN and the wider Indo-Pacific. Whoever wins, there is reason to believe that the United Kingdom will retain its strong institutional ties to the region.
There has been a battle royale in the United Kingdom (UK) for the leadership mantle of the Conservative Party. Between Elizabeth Truss and Rishi Sunak, there has been little talk about foreign policy apart from what has been said about the war in Ukraine and the threat posed by China. This begs the question of whether ASEAN will figure in the priorities of the country’s new prime minister.
The inaugural ASEAN-United Kingdom Ministerial Meeting on 4 August was supposed to be co-chaired by Truss, the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Affairs, and Foreign Minister Dato Erywan Yusof of Brunei. But Truss was not present. Instead, it was Amanda Milling, the Minister for Asia and the Middle East, who participated instead.
Truss would have been too caught up in the Tory leadership hustings to participate in the meeting. But ASEAN would be interested to know if the UK — which became the grouping’s 11th dialogue partner in August 2021 — would abide by its commitment to the region following its leadership transition.
The race will determine the UK’s next prime minister prime minister after Boris Johnson, who announced his resignation in July. During the race, little has been made known about Truss and Sunak’s foreign policy preferences apart from their views on the Russia-Ukraine war (both stress that London’s support for Ukraine will continue), and China, where both candidates are scrambling to look tough on Beijing. Apart from that, day-to-day issues such as the cost of living, taxation, housing, health, and social care have taken centre stage in the tight race.
The strategic importance of ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific seems to be lost in the bigger scheme of things, particularly amidst pressing developments in Europe and other global crises. Thus, it is difficult to predict which candidate will better promote ASEAN-UK relations in the long run and whether ASEAN will feature highly under the new leadership.
Between the two candidates, Truss understands the UK’s global interests more. Since she became foreign secretary in September 2021, she has sought to cultivate ties with ASEAN. She visited several countries in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia in November last year to strengthen economic and security ties with Southeast Asia. Jakarta hosts the ASEAN Secretariat. According to Truss, “Southeast Asia will be the engine of the global economy and I want Britain to be part of that, upgrading our economic and security relations with the region to reflect its growing importance.”
In addition, Liz Truss invited ASEAN to participate in the Group of 7 (G7) Foreign and Development Ministers’ meeting in December last year and urged ASEAN to play a greater role in shaping global standards on cutting-edge technology. She believes that ASEAN and the UK can forge win-win cooperation. This was reflected in the new ASEAN-UK Plan of Action (2022-2026) adopted at the ASEAN-UK ministerial meeting in August.
Whether the new prime minister possesses foreign policy nous or not, the country’s civil service should be able to ensure consistency in London’s approach to Southeast Asia.
Sunak on the other hand lacks experience in foreign policy, particularly outside of Europe. Though Sunak has held senior government positions including his last appointment as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, his foreign policy views, especially with regard to Southeast Asia, have been less pronounced.
His lack of broad government experience, particularly in foreign affairs, may have resulted in his harsher and more hawkish stance on China in his competition with Truss to get tough on the apparent “largest threat” to Britain. He has indicated the possibility of pursuing a “NATO-style” alliance of free nations to defend against Chinese technological aggression. This will not be viewed positively by ASEAN countries that prefer neutrality and non-alignment.
The next prime minister will be decided on 5 September. Whether Truss or Sunak emerges as the winner, ASEAN should rest assured that UK’s policy towards ASEAN will not change markedly overnight.
Whether the new prime minister possesses foreign policy nous or not, the country’s civil service should be able to ensure consistency in London’s approach to Southeast Asia. The new version of the UK’s five-year National Strategy for Maritime Security was released on 15 August 2022. It should reassure ASEAN that it has a place in the UK’s strategic interest. A particular section highlights the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt and why the South China Sea matters, noting that one-third of global trade (£91 billion worth of imports and exports) passes through it. It is also not surprising that the UK is joining other ASEAN dialogue partners to support the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and to seek enhanced cooperation under the framework. ASEAN also offers an opportunity for the UK to play the great game in the Indo-Pacific. This is underlined in the UK’s policy paper on “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, released in March last year.
The country’s mandarins will be keen to stress to the new prime minister that the UK had to fight hard to get the dialogue partnership with ASEAN. This was only possible after more than a year of discussions on getting around ASEAN moratorium on new dialogue partners that had been in place since 1996 (it was granted in view of UK’s relations with ASEAN on its own merits and its past engagement with ASEAN as a member of the European Union). The UK also knows that it will have a better chance to bag a seat in the East Asia Summit — the region’s premier mechanism — once it has got a foot in ASEAN’s door. Leadership change or no, the UK retains strong historical ties with regional countries (including through the Five Power Defence Arrangements), as well as its trilateral security partnership with Australia and the US (AUKUS).
However, the UK’s strong interest in the region does not equate to London putting much stock in ASEAN to play a strong leadership role in the Indo-Pacific. The UK’s support for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), whether it be for the collective group or individual Quad members, should signal to ASEAN that the grouping alone is insufficient to satisfy the goals of major powers (the Quad is perceived in some quarters to be undermining the centrality of ASEAN). Whether Truss or Sunak wins the race, the question for ASEAN is not whether the UK would continue its commitment to the bloc, but what can ASEAN do more to promote its relevance in the region so that major powers including the UK can rely on it to support their strategic needs in the region.
Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.