UK Probing in Asia-Pacific: ASEAN as a New Ally

Westminster is incapable of playing the role of a major power in Southeast Asia. The foreign policy of Southeast Asian countries is based on a balance between all trading partners. Britain becoming an ASEAN trading partner does not mean geopolitical influence in the region. Why the UK cannot play the role of a great power in ASEAN Why do ASEAN countries refuse to enter the geopolitical rivalries between the great powers of the region? What should be UK's logical relationship with ASEAN?

Earlier this month, Britain released a document outlining the government’s vision for national security and international politics. The title of the document is “Security, Defense, Development and Integrated Foreign Policy”, in which the British government has set its national security and international policies for what it describes as “Global Britain” for 2025.


UK’s Superman Foreign Policy?!

The government acknowledges that the geopolitical and economic centres of the world are moving east towards the Pacific and that the East must, therefore, be at the forefront of British foreign policy. In this regard, some in government are seeking new trade agreements with major regional powers, including members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). They believe that Britain is building its “soft power” diplomacy by developing it abroad.


Since the formal withdrawal of Britain from the European Union, new dynamics have emerged in some of its bilateral relations. So, the updated “global” strategy of British foreign policy this year raises the question of whether, according to Boris Johnson, Britain is a superman today, and whether it can play the role of a great power.

There is no doubt that power has shifted from the West to the East, but how does the East deal with Britain’s updated global foreign policy called Superman?! Britain seems to be dreaming of a superpower era.


The Attractive Position of ASEAN Countries for Britain

According to the British government, the mutual strategic interests of ASEAN, India and the Pacific have shifted from a policy of expanding bilateral relations to a global policy.

As Asia grows, “Global Britain” seeks to strengthen cooperation with like-minded nations of the Pacific. It saw leaving the EU as an opportunity to discuss strengthening economic ties with Southeast Asia.

Due to its strategic position in Southeast Asia, the British government considers Indonesia to be one of the fastest growing countries in the region. It is estimated that by 2050, the country will become the fourth largest economy in the world. Thus, Britain has targeted Indonesia as one of the first countries to deepen its engagement with through the “Global Britain” strategy.

In January, Britain joined ASEAN. Using financial leverage and helping to develop these countries as soft powers, Britain is extensively engaged in Southeast Asia. But Britain’s soft power is not enough to increase its influence in ASEAN geopolitics.


Inadequate Government Measures to Expand Power in ASEAN

Britain seeks to share the cost of Western global challenges (such as human rights, democracy, regional security and climate change) through measures like the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine and increased engagement with ASEAN countries  such as Indonesia in geopolitical competitions. Hence, it has joined the dialogue  with ASEAN partners and seeks to expand its influence with them.

But these actions are still in the planning stage and are not real. British power is average power. Britain is strengthening its centre of power by increasing the number of nuclear weapons on Trident submarines and modernising its armed forces.


However, due to domestic priorities (such as rebuilding the economy, preparing for another pandemic, and fighting climate change), the country is unable to pursue its strategic goals. Therefore, it must either pursue peaceful policies in the ASEAN region or accept that it is a bridge between the EU and the United States in the region, which is not good for the country.


The Problem of British Foreign Policy in ASEAN

The UK economic diplomacy, especially sanctioning countries that it considers to be abusers of human rights , shows that it has accepted the option of being a bridge for US policies against China. At the same time, ASEAN countries have extensive economic interaction with China and cannot choose between China and the United Kingdom as their trading partners. This is the starting point of a crack in UK’s global policy to develop relations with Southeast Asia. The countries of the region will choose China if they must choose between China and Britain.


Pragmatic Foreign Policy of Southeast Asian Countries

ASEAN foreign policy today is largely pragmatic and opportunistic, based on cost-benefit calculations rather than British liberal-democratic values. They seek the supremacy of domestic interests based on economic development and see foreign partners as both strategic partners and potential threats.


Their main priority is to develop the economy through “economic diplomacy”, and this is at the forefront of their diplomatic interactions. Therefore, UK’s global policy and the expansion of its soft power in Southeast Asia is not possible by vaccination alone. With this amount of soft power, Britain cannot persuade countries in the region to line up against China.


Countries in the region may even see the British presence from a geopolitical perspective. In this case, Britain, not China, is seen as an annoying foreign power; instead of expanding its economic power, Britain pursues divisive goals in ASEAN.


What is Britain’s Real Logic in ASEAN?

In its relations with the ASEAN countries, Britain must be careful to find a balance between the views of these countries with China and its other economic partners. Britain, however, does not seem to be looking to do this. At present, Asian countries have strong ties with China, which their governments consider important for the realisation of their domestic economic programme.


So Britain should not follow the same approach as the Trump administration by trying to influence their policy in China. Stronger ties with these countries in the future require Britain to respect the traditional foundations of its “free and active” foreign policy. Britain should not see the potential of working with these countries as a sign of its widespread influence and misjudge strategic calculations.


Instead, Britain must work with them to strengthen its security, defense, and political capabilities in the face of growing tensions and threats in the region. The future remains uncertain, and the only thing that is certain is that the increase in interaction between Britain and ASEAN countries will require a practical and accurate calculation by policy-makers on both sides.

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