BANGKOK -- Britain reigned supreme in the world's ocean from the 17th to 20th centuries, and its formal withdrawal from the European Union at the end of January means it has started redefining its political and diplomatic priorities in line with its old identity as a leading maritime country.
After half a century of concentrating its strategic attention on the continent, the U.K.'s strategic focus is now shifting toward the Indo-Pacific, where it once had a dominant economic and military presence. As a result of this seismic geopolitical shift, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is facing the need to figure out the full implications of Britain's return as a maritime power.
On Jan. 15, just over two weeks before Brexit day, Heather Wheeler, who was then a parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in charge of the Asia-Pacific region, visited the ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta and conveyed London's message to ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi.
"We've been a dialogue partner via the European Union for over 40 years. We would like to have that status going forward. We realize it is going to take a little time to get that done but we are planting the seed today to say that we'd like U.K. dialogue status with ASEAN partners," Wheeler said.
ASEAN has been developing close ties with its dialogue partners through regular high-level talks over regional and global issues since 1978, when Japan became the first country to acquire the status. Now, nine countries and one international organization -- the EU -- are ASEAN's dialogue partners. The EU joined the list in its former guise as the European Community in 1979.
These dialogue partners have their own missions to ASEAN in Jakarta, which serve as liaison offices for their exchanges and communications with the trade bloc.
The U.K. has opened its new mission to ASEAN and will hold a ceremony to celebrate its establishment at the end of February.
But ASEAN has not added any country to the list of its dialogue partners since 1996, when India, China and Russia joined the ranks.
The U.K. government's zeal to bolster its ties with ASEAN is clear in its move to set up the facility immediately after it left the EU for launching the probably lengthy process of becoming an ASEAN dialogue partner.
Asia has been the driving force of global economic growth. Divorced from the EU, the U.K. is keen to align itself with the region's growth momentum.
London's main interest lies in its economic partnership with ASEAN. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab visited Singapore on Feb. 10 on a leg of his first post-Brexit overseas tour, which also took him to Australia, Japan and Malaysia.
Raab stressed the strategic importance of Singapore, the only ASEAN member with a free trade agreement with the EU, for the U.K. by describing it as a "linchpin" of Britain's strategy for the future.
The U.K., which has been promoting free trade via the EU, needs to strike fresh trade deals with its major partners during the transition period, which runs to the end of this year. London apparently sees Singapore's free trade pact with the EU, a product of 10 years of negotiations, as a potential template for its deal with ASEAN.
Another key area is security. Around the time when the U.K. decided to part with the EU in 2016, it pledged its military involvement in the Far East. In a move to deliver on the promise in 2018, the U.K. navy sent two frigates -- Sutherland and Argyll -- to the South China Sea in the first deployment of these warships to the region.
London is considering a plan to dispatch an aircraft career to the region in 2021 or later. There are even rumors that the U.K. is considering constructing new military bases in East Asia, with Singapore and Brunei being mooted as candidates to host such facilities. There is no doubt that the U.K. has future arms sales to countries in the region in mind.
Britain used to wield outstanding influence in Southeast Asia. It exercised suzerainty over the four ASEAN members of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Myanmar, as well as countries in surrounding areas including Australia, New Zealand, India and Bangladesh.
When the European Economic Community, the original prescurser to the EU, was created in 1957, however, Britain gave up its efforts to maintain its maritime hegemony and shifted the focus of its strategic attention to the continent. In 1962, then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made a passionate case for the U.K.'s membership of the EEC during the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference in London, which debated the wisdom of applying to join.
Macmillan argued that continents where information and goods traveled around are where wealth is created most. He said an overseas empire like Britain's was no longer a path to prosperity.
In 1968, the U.K. announced it would permanently withdraw its troops from the "east of Suez," and in 1973 it joined the EC.
Britain's move to retreat from Asia and expand its presence in Europe left the U.S. to take over leadership of the formation of order in Asia during and after the Cold War. This geopolitical structure in the region has been threatened by China's growing power and influence in recent years.
ASEAN will be grappling with the ramifications of Brexit and Britain's reemergence as a maritime power looking to remap its presence in the region.
On the economic front, the EU is ASEAN's second-largest trade partner after China. In 2018, trade between ASEAN and the EU amounted to $288.2 billion, compared with $483.7 billion-worth of transactions with China.
The U.K. accounted for 12.1% of the EU-ASEAN trade, the fourth-largest figure among EU members following Germany, the Netherlands and France.
ASEAN has been forging free trade agreements with its major trade partners including Japan, China and South Korea. But its trade talks with the EU, which started in 2007, have been suspended since 2009, when the EU walked out in protest against human rights abuses by Myanmar's military junta.
The EU has switched to negotiating deals with individual members, but the only ASEAN countries that have signed a trade accord with the EU are Singapore and Vietnam, which will see the deal come into effect possibly in 2020.
On Feb. 12, the EU ended part of Cambodia's special trade preferences over Prime Minister Hun Sen's crackdown on opposition parties.
Such economic sanctions, however, hurt the countries' general populations, who need support, rather than their autocratic rulers. Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, criticizes the EU's attitude in a recent interview with Nikkei, while voicing respect for its values like democracy, human rights and environmental protections. Tay argues that economic sanctions cannot extract positive changes from the countries, calling on the EU to become more flexible.
The U.K.'s headlong rush to strike a trade deal with ASEAN may put pressure on the EU, which has been adamantly refusing trade talks with the Southeast Asian bloc. ASEAN would gain enormous benefits from a free trade pact with the EU.
Greater British presence in Southeast Asia will also have a big impact on the region's security landscape.
The U.K. was ranked eighth on the 2019 list of countries with the strongest military power compiled by Global Fire Power, a U.S. military research company, based on comprehensive evaluations of nations' military spending, troops, equipment and other factors affecting military capabilities.
The U.K.'s involvement in ASEAN's regional defense cooperation could help create a buffer to ease tensions between the U.S. and China.
ASEAN's diplomatic strategy has been driven by effective use of members' collective power and clout to protect and promote their interests in the rough-and-tumble world of international politics.
Britain's reemergence as an active and powerful naval and maritime actor will give ASEAN a new strategic option for its efforts to carve out a respectable position for itself through delicate diplomatic balancing acts to avoid antagonizing any major power.
Britain has been among the most vocal champions of such values and principles as democracy and human rights while appearing oblivious to its past colonial rule in many parts of the world.
However, the U.K. is a mere shadow of its former self as a committed advocate of democracy and human rights. The British government has been weak-kneed in criticizing China's blatant efforts to gut the "one country, two systems" principle agreed between London and Beijing during their negotiations for the handover of Hong Kong. From this point of view, the U.K. of today is far less active in promoting the values and principles it upholds.
That means the U.K., which has turned its back on the EU while eagerly pursuing closer ties with ASEAN, may turn out to be a convenient partner for the Southeast Asian grouping.