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UK must thread needle between interests and values in Southeast Asia

Article by Ben Bland

July 2, 2021

UK must thread needle between interests and values in Southeast Asia

If the British Government’s recently announced “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” is to mature from rhetoric to reality, increased engagement in Southeast Asia will be the key to success.


This diverse region of ten countries and more than 650 million people is rich with opportunities for deeper economic and security cooperation. However, it is burdened by governance challenges and unmet development needs that have multiplied because of the pandemic.


Southeast Asia also lies at the heart of the geopolitical contest of our time – between China, on the one hand, and the US and its allies, on the other.


The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, unveiled in March, acknowledged the importance of the region to the wider goal of building a ‘Global Britain’.[1] But it did not reflect the challenges inherent in moving closer to Southeast Asia, where most states are run by authoritarian governments that are wary of intensifying competition between the West and China.


Last week’s trip to the region by Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, highlighted the extent of these challenges and the diplomatic skills that will be required to thread the needle between values and interests in Southeast Asia.


As he left the UK, Raab implemented new sanctions against companies linked to Myanmar’s military junta, which seized power in a coup in February. The UK has taken an admirably principled stance against the coup and the murderous crackdown on the democracy movement that continues to this day.


It’s the sort of approach that chimes with the “New Atlantic Charter” that Prime Minister Johnson and US President Biden signed in early June, promising “to defend the principles, values, and institutions of democracy and open societies”.


But only hours later, the foreign secretary had landed in Hanoi for warm meetings with the leadership of Vietnam, a Communist dictatorship that mercilessly squashes its opposition, albeit with little of the violence seen in Myanmar. Then he was off to Cambodia, ruled by the personalised dictatorship of Hun Sen, before ending his trip in Singapore, where the ruling People’s Action Party has kept a firm grip on power since independence from the UK.


Raab, of course, was not in these countries to preach the values of democracy and free speech. He was pursuing Britain’s interests in broadened economic and diplomatic partnerships. In Singapore and Vietnam, he was pushing Britain’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an 11-country trade agreement that was backed by the Obama administration before Donald Trump pulled the US out. In Phnom Penh, he was seeking Cambodia’s support for the UK to become an official Dialogue Partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the regional organisation that Cambodia will chair next year.


As a wide range of outside powers court Southeast Asia, from the US and China to Japan, India, Australia and South Korea, the region’s governments are keen to maximise their leverage. The more that foreign governments want, the more that Southeast Asia’s leaders expect in return. Which is why the British Government must play its hand carefully if it is to secure CPTPP membership and become the first new ASEAN Dialogue Partner since 1999, when the organisation initiated a moratorium on new interlocutors.


The increasing talk in London, Washington DC and Canberra of the world dividing into democratic and authoritarian camps will not resonate in Southeast Asia, even in the democracies like Indonesia and the Philippines, which fear Western interference in their systems as much as Chinese.


But the British Government, alongside its US and Australian allies, clearly believes that it cannot rally public support for a potentially costly pushback against China unless it plays the values card.


This is the essential conundrum of deeper engagement in Southeast Asia. It is not unsolvable but it will be difficult to find the right balance between pursing British interests and British values.


The best approach is to engage at a practical level, trying to help Southeast Asian leaders solve the thorny problems they are facing, from the pandemic and climate change to uneven economic growth, while working more quietly with civil society to promote better governance.


Raab has passed the first test of diplomacy in Southeast Asia by turning up, with this being his fifth trip to the region since he was appointed two years ago. Arriving in Phnom Penh, he became the first British Foreign Secretary to visit Cambodia since 1953.


Britain’s renewed engagement in Southeast Asia, including the appointment of a dedicated ambassador to ASEAN in 2019, has been welcomed in the region, with ASEAN endorsing in principle the UK’s bid to become a formal Dialogue Partner.


But there will be many difficult conversations in the years to come, starting with Myanmar.


While the UK has taken a tough line against the junta, Vietnam and Cambodia are among the ASEAN member states that have frustrated the organisation’s efforts to pressure Myanmar’s generals to stop the violence and seek talks with the ousted elected government.


Calling these nations out or pressuring them to do more about Myanmar would likely undermine Vietnam’s backing for Britain’s membership of the CPTPP and Cambodia’s support for Britain’s Dialogue Partner status. Even Myanmar’s generals, who control the machinery of government, could block the latter should they wish, under ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making process.


The Integrated Review pitches the tilt to the Indo-Pacific as being in support of “shared prosperity and regional stability”.[2] The reality, when it comes to Southeast Asia, is that there are many risks ahead, as well as opportunities.


Image by Number 10 under (CC).


[1] HM Government, Global Britain in a competitive age, The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021,

[2] Ibid.

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