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Opinion

Post-Brexit UK should prioritize Southeast Asia trade deals

London is well-placed to surpass Brussels in relations with ASEAN

A Union Jack flag on the tag of a mattress in a store in Bangkok: total two-way trade between Britain and ASEAN amounted to more than $48 billion in 2018.   © Reuters

In June 2016, the U.K. voted narrowly to leave the EU. Three years and three prime ministers later, Britain will finally exit on January 31, and a new chapter in British history will open as the island state returns to its historical position as a separate European power.

Supporters of Brexit think the U.K. can once again become an open trading powerhouse, free from its inward-looking European neighbors, internal EU conflicts and excessive regulation. Critics argue that Britain outside the EU will be a small island in the Atlantic, exhausted by trade negotiations and suffering economic consequences from withdrawal.

Either way, London now has a unique opportunity to reshape what Brexit supporters call "Global Britain." Relations with Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand can grow substantially -- and so can engagement with Asia's central institution, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Since 2016, British officials have visited ASEAN countries frequently to lobby for sound post-Brexit partnerships and to make the case that Brexit enables an ambitious U.K. re-engagement strategy in Asia. ASEAN members are listening.

There are several reasons for this. First, dealing with a sovereign government rather than a multicountry confederation comes naturally to ASEAN's 10 member states, which work with each other on an intergovernmental basis.

Britain has maintained substantial bilateral relations with its former colonies in Southeast Asia -- Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar -- and has already inaugurated a Mission to ASEAN. U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab's first overseas visit was to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Bangkok in July and August 2019.

These diplomatic advantages reinforce Britain's substantial soft power in Southeast Asia, which exceeds that of any other European nation. More than 40% of ASEAN citizens living in the EU reside in Britain, and the U.K. is by far the region's most important European education destination, accounting for 70% of ASEAN citizens who are in Europe for that purpose.

This reflects the outstanding reputation of British academic institutions, the general appeal of the U.K. and the close historic, diplomatic, cultural and other nongovernmental ties with the region.

One early outcome of this close relationships is that a U.K.-ASEAN Dialogue Partnership could be established, despite an ASEAN moratorium on extending such partnerships. Both Singapore and Vietnam, the current chair of ASEAN, are among those that would support a British application, bypassing earlier European applications.

Subsequently, London could make a strong case for membership of the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus, the region's premier security mechanism, where member states confer with eight outside countries including the U.S., China, Russia, India and Japan. The U.K. has the most extensive security posture in Southeast Asia of any EU state, and is one of only two with noteworthy power projection capabilities.

Second, and unlike the EU as a whole, Britain will have flexible and sovereign hard power and will be able to make a strong case for assisting in the maintenance of a secure, free and open Indo-Pacific. Its navy maintained a continuous presence in the Asia-Pacific in 2018, and London is moving to reestablish a significant military presence in the region, possibly including a naval base.

A crew member guides a tour near the Royal Navy ship HMS Albion at a port in Jakarta in April 2018: the Royal Navy maintained a continuous presence in the Asia-Pacific.   © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This comes in addition to the existing Five Power Defense Arrangements, signed in 1971 with the governments of the U.K., Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore, which include a permanent military presence in Singapore.

Alongside France and the EU, Britain has applied to take part in ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus working groups and is well placed to leapfrog other applicants for full membership.

Third, the U.K. is one of the largest European markets and sources of foreign direct investment for ASEAN. Total two-way trade between Britain and ASEAN amounted to more than $48 billion in 2018. The U.K. invested $22 billion in ASEAN in 2017.

Post-Brexit, London is planning bilateral trade agreements with Singapore and Vietnam on the basis of existing EU agreements. Deals may also be struck with Thailand and Indonesia, whose talks with Brussels have stalled and may be surpassed by London.

It remains debatable whether the U.K. was wise to leave the EU. In particular, it is unclear what final arrangements will be possible for British access to the EU single market. With Brexit decided, however, there is no reason to suspect that Britain will fail to deepen its strong partnerships in Southeast Asia.

Skepticism about the capacity of post-Brexit Britain remains, and there may be EU-U.K. competition for the best seat in ASEAN. But Britain is in a good place to secure bilateral trade agreements. Despite plenty of doomsaying, the glass is half-full if London remains committed to Global Britain. ASEAN should be a key target for post-Brexit Britain.

Frederick Kliem is a fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, specializing in ASEAN and EU-Asia relations.

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