by max cheung
ASEAN’s geopolitical significance is defining a new era for middle-power states, one unfolding against the backdrop of a superpower rivalry between the U.S. and China. The competition between the United States and China is likely to heat up, with the Indo-Pacific serving as the locus of multiple potential flashpoints. The importance of the Indo-Pacific in the coming decades has compelled major world powers to establish a presence in the region. Thus, the UK plans to deeply engage and become a key player in the Indo-Pacific theater—starting with ASEAN. There is pressure now for ASEAN states to align themselves with either of the superpowers. Given the geographic proximity and the cultural affinities between ASEAN member states and China, it would be fair to assume that a deeper and more congruent relationship can be established between the two. Yet, ASEAN has been unable to agree on a consistent position on China. ASEAN’s capacity to align with the West is largely impeded by China’s regional economic presence, with China being ASEAN’s biggest trade partner. On the contrary, China’s aggressive approach to diplomacy and soft power has rubbed ASEAN member states the wrong way. For instance, the CCP’s ongoing endeavor to impose a Chinese identity onto the multicultural society of Singapore can only be described as a bad-faith strategy to gain solidarity from ethnic Chinese Singaporeans.
Where does the UK fall in this context?
The UK has longstanding ties with ASEAN, notwithstanding its prior colonial history. In fact, the relations between past colonies and the UK have, for the most part, been amicable. Colonial institutions such as the Commonwealth of Nations have been critical in maintaining diplomatic relations with ASEAN crown colonies such as Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Myanmar. The United Kingdom maintains a substantial military presence in ASEAN member states Singapore and Brunei. Though a remnant of their colonial reach and power, existing military bases in ASEAN will be pivotal for the UK to gain a foothold in the Indo-Pacific. The UK certainly has a historical advantage— it's proven to be much more deeply entrenched than any other great Western power—in terms of their potential to expand on its relations with ASEAN, positioning the UK to potentially become a significant force in a seemingly-inevitable clash between the two superpowers.
As part of a strategic effort to expand its global presence, the UK has spent the last decade promoting, alongside the U.S., a democratic style of governance that is underpinned by a necessity for cooperation between states. Whilst all of this played a part in the UK’s endeavor to preserve the post-Cold War international rules-based order, it is now imperative for the UK to take on a more active role in preserving the faltering status quo. Most importantly, the UK needs to establish a greater footprint in the Indo-Pacific to address China’s economic and military power and curb its influence as a systemic competitor. In this regard, ASEAN possesses qualities that are conducive to partnership; a propensity to uphold the international rules-based order. Underpinning this propensity is a clear commitment by the ASEAN member states, as defined by the ASEAN centrality, to uphold international law and build a free and open regional architecture. Although ASEAN lacks cohesiveness on many contentious issues, its centrality remains the driving force for regional cooperation.
Framework for Policy Trajectory
There are two key documents that outline the UK’s policy trajectory for the coming decade: the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development, and Foreign Policy (hereinafter referred to as the "Integrated Review") and the Plan of Action (POA) for the ASEAN–UK Dialogue Partnership. It may be worth noting that the Integrated Review mentions China 28 times and the Indo-Pacific 34 times, compared to mentioning Russia and the U.S. 14 times and 8 times, respectively, highlighting the perceived strategic threat of China and the significance of the Indo-Pacific. A key objective defined by the Integrated Review is for the UK to become an ASEAN Dialogue Partner, enabling the deepening of relations between the two entities. As such, the POA outlines three key pillars of cooperation between the UK and ASEAN: political and security, economics, and socio-cultural.
Political and Security Pillar
The major themes presented within this pillar are the promotion of an international rules-based order and addressing the pervasiveness of autocracy in the region, vis-a-vis China’s regional presence. It is important to note that ASEAN is not a security alliance; ASEAN member states cannot be legally bound by a supranational military framework. Thus, political and security cooperation between the UK and ASEAN, outlined by the POA, is limited to diplomatic avenues. As such, in addressing the major themes of this pillar, the UK employs a diplomatic tactic that focuses on empowering institutional cooperation: so-called “regulatory diplomacy” brings together governments, standard-setting bodies, and industries to construct frameworks that influence international rules, norms, and standards. In this context, regulatory diplomacy is used to spread ASEAN centrality values to a broader Indo-Pacific framework, deepening and expanding partnerships with ASEAN member states to promote international rules and norms in the region. Nonetheless, current plans set out by the POA illustrate the ambiguous nature of international cooperation. The provisions lack procedural substance and fail to outline tangible steps that will be taken to achieve certain goals, resulting in vague commitments to "promote," "expand," "strengthen," and "support." While the UK's open commitment to deepening political and security cooperation with ASEAN is a welcome development in terms of regional security, it is unlikely that the UK will make significant progress in luring ASEAN states into the western camp. Granted, security cooperation is limited by the non-military orientation of ASEAN. Even so, by building a deeper diplomatic relationship with ASEAN, the UK can nevertheless open up avenues for developing cooperation in strategically critical areas.
Still, the UK needs to take more decisive actions if it aspires to become a key player in the Indo-Pacific region. Several promising developments have expanded the UK’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific. In 2021, the UK announced additional patrol vessels to be stationed at Singapore’s Sembawang Royal Navy facility. Similarly, two additional Royal Navy warships, HMS Queen Elizabeth and RFA Tidespring, as part of Carrier Strike Group 21, have been assigned as permanent installations to the Indo-Pacific. Together, the enhanced maritime presence signals the advent of the UK’s tilt toward the Indo-Pacific. Prevailing trends suggest that, with deeper cooperation between the UK and ASEAN, the Royal Navy will look to further expand its military presence in Singapore, Brunei, or Malaysia.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, is well represented in the UK’s maritime strategy to promulgate a free and open Indo-Pacific. Part of the UK’s regulatory diplomacy endeavor is to reduce the potential for conflict in the Indo-Pacific, in particular territorial disputes along the Taiwan Strait, through regulatory standards that are advocated by the UNCLOS. In addition to the UNCLOS, the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization, as advocated for by the UK, will also play a role in creating a sustainable regulatory framework with the cooperation of ASEAN partners.
The implementation of the ASEAN-UK Joint Ministerial Declaration on Future Economic Cooperation has been pivotal to the UK’s economic strategy. The joint declaration reaffirms a bilateral commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and, at the same time, provides a framework to strengthen ASEAN-UK supply chains and promote international economic regulations consistent with the WTO. The emphasis on supply chains is, seemingly, deliberate in targeting China’s prevalent use of coercive economic statecraft—against states such as Australia and New Zealand—as leverage in systemic competition, compelling other regional states to employ the same economic tools. The UK is hoping to expand its economic presence through existing international institutions to further combat China’s regional economic dominance. Amidst the myriad of hollow commitments expressed through obscure language such as "enhancing dialogue," "promoting regulatory frameworks," and "continued support," the UK’s new initiative with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) stands out as a prudent approach to establishing a deeper economic partnership with ASEAN states. In 2021, the UK announced that it would commit up to £110 million for the ASEAN Catalytic Green Finance Facility (ACGF), an ADB fund created to promote infrastructure projects in ASEAN. Although ASEAN has been sustaining steady economic growth— 5.5% in 2022—as one of the fastest-growing regions in the world, ADB has forecasted a decrease in growth for the coming year. An increased demand for exports has allowed ASEAN to stay afloat, but a lack of infrastructure is costing ASEAN’s ability to sustain growth. In 2014, a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute forecast that an investment of over $2 trillion in infrastructure is needed to sustain ASEAN’s economic growth. Today, there is still an investment shortfall of over $100 billion a year. The UK’s investment in ASEAN infrastructure will certainly translate well into developing a greater economic presence in the region.
The UK’s soft power has been on a steady decline since the fall of the British empire. Yet, the UK has managed to maintain a prominent international standing by virtue of its strong financial sector, world-class universities, and influential role in international institutions. Yet, China has introduced an alternative set of institutions that will soon, if not already, rival British institutions—world-class Chinese universities have been steadily rising in international rankings, attracting over 400,000 foreign students, many of whom are from ASEAN states. Tsinghua University, for instance, offers the ASEAN-China Young Leader Scholarship, created to deepen people-to-people linkages between youths and academic elites. A similar approach in education must be employed by the UK. 42% of ASEAN’s population is represented by ages under 25, and the education of ASEAN youths will profoundly influence the region’s policy making decisions in the long run. A British education is the most effective avenue for propagating political values and culture. The current plans, as outlined in the POA, do not include decisive actions to expand UK-ASEAN educational exchange. Though, one of the core challenges that the UK faces, which is being addressed by the POA, is their faltering cultural appeal to ASEAN states. The British Council reported that only 6% of surveyed individuals in ASEAN states named the UK as preferred in cultural terms, further implicating an erosion of interest for the UK as an education destination. Also, it is unclear whether the UK’s current approach to increase its socio-cultural presence through media, volunteer programs, sports, and cultural exchanges will be sufficient to offset its weakening international profile. In this regard, a priority should be to establish deeper ties between UK and ASEAN educational institutions, weakening the barriers of obtaining a British education for ASEAN youths.
The success of the UK’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific will be largely dependent on effective policy engagements with ASEAN. By understanding the needs of ASEAN, the UK will need to be pragmatic in its strategy and act carefully so as to not disrupt the precarious balance of ASEAN’s US-China hedge.
Max Cheung is the director for the Security & Diplomacy team and currently a third-year undergraduate at the University of Washington Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.