Maximising British engagement with Southeast Asia

The United Kingdom’s (UK) engagement with the Indo-Pacific is increasing, and its outlook on the region maturing. Although the home islands are geographically distant, Britain is becoming ever more intertwined with the Indo-Pacific’s security and economic architecture, a process which has largely been welcomed by regional powers. As the UK further ‘tilts’ towards the region, however, it should not forget the importance of engaging multilaterally with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and bilaterally with its member states in ensuring regional security and, ultimately, realising its goals in the Indo-Pacific.

Importance of Southeast Asia

There is an abundance of opportunities for the UK in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia boasts a population of over 660 million people and, when aggregated, the members of ASEAN make up the fifth[↗] largest economy in the world. The Covid-19 pandemic did wreak havoc on Southeast Asia’s individual economies; however, the region’s major economies, such as Indonesia[↗] and Malaysia[↗], are already bouncing back, and as the middle classes across the region continue to grow, so too will per capita consumption and the region’s overall economic clout.

Southeast Asia is also a key hub for global manufacturing, an emerging centre for technology upcycle and innovation (particularly in the electric vehicle battery industry) and remains a major global exporter of agricultural products, such as palm oil, rubber, and cereals. 

The geopolitical centre of the Indo-Pacific also lies in Southeast Asia. Critical maritime communication lines and choke-points, such as the South China Sea and Malacca Straits, are in the Southeast Asian littoral, and ensuring these remain open and not dominated by any one power is of increased strategic importance – indeed, Britain’s Integrated Review establishes an ‘open international order’ as a national objective. Southeast Asia is also where competition between the United States (US) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is largely playing out in the Indo-Pacific, and this competition is only projected to increase.

For these reasons, overlooking the region would amount to economic and strategic folly. If it is to succeed in its engagement and be seen as a genuine partner in Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific more broadly, Her Majesty’s (HM) Government ought to become more in-tune with the domestic needs of individual Southeast Asian nations and ASEAN, as domestic concerns dominate individual government, and ASEAN’s, agenda. Addressing climate change, enhancing strategic capabilities, and supporting the sustainable growth of the digital economy in the region are some of the areas of domestic concern to ASEAN and its individual member states, and areas in which the UK will be able to successfully engage.

Tackling climate change

Southeast Asia is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, particularly rising sea levels that threaten[↗] to flood certain capital cities and major manufacturing areas. A key priority for Southeast Asia in addressing climate change is the development and implementation of ASEAN’s climate policies, as made clear in the bloc’s 2021 State of Climate Change Report[↗] (ASCCR). ASCCR hinges ASEAN’s climate mitigation goals for Southeast Asia on reaching Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions ‘as early as possible’ in the latter half of the twenty-first century. The ASCCR also aims to improve the mutual exchange of information and expertise on addressing climate change, and acknowledges how ASEAN’s ambition of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 will require ‘collaborative efforts’ from within, and outside, the bloc. 

Transitioning away from fossil fuels is a major[↗] challenge for Southeast Asia. The industry is entrenched and still expanding[↗], undercutting the potential for that of renewables. The UK should focus on attempting to scale down the fossil fuel industry in Southeast Asia first, and can initially do so through promoting and investing in initiatives like nature-based solutions[↗]. This would foster the competitiveness of the renewables industry, where the UK could then capitalise on its capacity and knowledge – particularly with wind energy – to aid the development of renewable technologies in Southeast Asia through the transfer of technology and know-how. HM Government should also increase the competitiveness of the renewables industry in Southeast Asia by incorporating more of its nations into Britain’s ‘Clean Green Initiative[↗]’. As a result of all this, there would be more sustainable economic development and energy for Southeast Asia, a reduction in emissions, and an increase in regional knowledge about renewable technology and its implementation, ultimately hastening ASEAN’s achievement of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions ‘as early as possible’ and carbon neutrality by 2050. 

Furthermore, to mitigate against the impact climate change is already having on the region, HMS Spay and HMS Tamar, two British patrol vessels permanently deployed in the Indo-Pacific, should be utilised to respond with rapid humanitarian assistance to any severe weather/natural disaster that affects Southeast Asian nations. This occurred[↗] in Tonga in response to the devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami in January 2022.

Enhancing strategic engagement

In a recent ASEAN poll[↗], 35.6% of respondents identified ‘increased military tensions arising from potential flashpoints’, such as the South China Sea, as one of the top three problems facing the region in the coming year. Furthermore, 76.4% responded that they were ‘worried’ about the PRC’s growing economic and political influence in Southeast Asia. This is not to imply that the PRC’s presence is predominately rejected in Southeast Asia, as it is not; however, it does infer that there are growing fears over its position in the region.

In an endeavour to assuage some of these fears, HM Government would do well to look to expand upon existing strategic partnerships. The UK and Vietnam have like minded interests in the Indo-Pacific and an official strategic partnership[↗] that goes back to 2010, and their cooperation on hydrography and maritime domain awareness can be deepened – bearing in mind the ‘four nos[↗]’ of Vietnamese foreign policy. The Carrier Strike Group Deployment last year also conducted[↗] naval exercises with the Navy’s of Singapore and Malaysia and the UK should continue to engage in exercises with these navies, and indeed, other navies of Southeast Asia eager to do so.

Moreover, the UK could even play a hands-on role in building up Southeast Asia’s naval capacity; it could transfer patrol vessels, as it did[↗] with Sandown-class minehunters, and support their construction through the transfer of technology, know-how, and practical assistance, as was done[↗] for Thailand’s River-class patrol vessels. Strengthening the military capacity of Southeast Asia’s individual states and increasing their interoperability with the UK, thus enhancing national and regional resilience, is one of the most effective ways in allowing the region to effectively combat any unwanted pressure from the PRC.

Moreover, Southeast Asia is home to some of the most (over)fished waters in the world, particularly the South China Sea. Over[↗] 10 million Southeast Asians rely on the fishing industry for their livelihood, leaving illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and acts of piracy as socially and economically detrimental to the region. The UK should look to increase its individual efforts in patrolling regional waters where IUU fishing is common, and conduct joint IUU fishing patrols with Southeast Asian partners eager to do so. HMS Spay and HMS Tamar could be utilised in this endeavour.

Developing the digitally-enabled economy

Looking at the agenda of the now-postponed[↗] US-ASEAN summit, is it clear that ASEAN and its individual member states are also looking for cooperation from their Euro-Atlantic allies in the digital sector, an area where the UK can successfully engage.

Southeast Asia is one of the fastest growing internet markets in the world. Yet, varying deficiencies in digital skills, data policy, and digital regulation may impede the region from realising its ambitions for a digital transformation. ASEAN is aware of these challenges, as outlined in the ASEAN ICT Masterplan 2020[↗], and is working to build regional and member-specific digital capabilities, and work with dialogue partners, to propel the region toward a digitally-enabled economy that is secure and sustainable.

With a regulatory focus on online safety and personal data protection, a highly skilled digital workforce, robust public-private collaboration on tech and digital policy and strong cyber practitioners, the UK is a valuable digital partner for Southeast Asia and can use its recently achieved ‘dialogue partner[↗]’ status with the bloc to engage and ultimately help the region advance its digital economy. Simultaneously, the UK could propose workshops, roundtables and confidence building seminars with Southeast Asian nations and share best practices with them to support online safety, bolster digital skills among the region’s current and emerging workforce (such as retraining, reskilling and upskilling) and encourage data policy that has consumer protection front of mind.

Further, the UK’s public and private digital and tech sector could also look to invest in Southeast Asia’s rapidly emerging tech and digital start-up sector, as this will strengthen the region’s digital economy as well as limit the entrenchment of tech giants in its market. Additionally, the UK’s private sector would do well to engage with the region’s business communities, industry bodies and government agencies involved in the digital economy and provide consultation, where appropriate, on developing a robust digital and tech policy, which would offer an avenue for bolstering business-to-business and people-to-people ties and highlight the practical importance the UK places in its relationship with ASEAN and its individual member states. By supporting and investing in Southeast Asia’s digital economy, the UK would also provide meaningful long-term benefit to the region’s post-Covid-19 recovery.

Conclusion

The areas chosen above highlight the breadth of impact that the UK could have in Southeast Asia, and indeed, already has. To be sure, there are many other important ways in which Britain could engage Southeast Asia, such as further looking for new avenues of trade and aiding the region’s post-Covid-19 recovery.

The UK still has a long way to go in Southeast Asia, and although making significant progress in the region, must accelerate ahead. Britain’s ‘dialogue partner’ status with ASEAN should be utilised to full effect and viewed as a multi-vectored tool to both enhance engagement with ASEAN and its individual member states whilst simultaneously learning more about the Southeast Asian region. In doing so, HM Government ought to keep an ear to the ground and an eye on the domestic concerns of the bloc and its members so that it can incorporate them into its engagement. This will paint Britain as a genuine and honest partner in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific more broadly, allowing it to better realise its Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’.

Julian Neuweiler is an Analyst for BowerGroup Asia where he focuses on geopolitical, policy and economic issues in the Indo-Pacific. Patrick Triglavcanin is a Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy.

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