In this webinar, Ambassador Jon Lambe, Ambassador of the UK Mission to ASEAN, Ms Veerle Nouwens of the Royal United Services Institute, and Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University discussed the UK’s Southeast Asia policy in the context of its overall Indo-Pacific vision, as well as Southeast Asia’s expectations and concerns over the UK’s geopolitical ambitions.
ASEAN STUDIES CENTRE & REGIONAL STRATEGIC AND POLITICAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Thursday, 26 August 2021 – Ambassador Jon Lambe, Ambassador of the UK Mission to ASEAN, Ms Veerle Nouwens, Senior Research Fellow of the International Security Studies Department at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), as well as Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, spoke on the priorities and challenges in ASEAN-UK dialogue relations within the framework of the UK’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific. The panel also discussed specific areas where both sides could strengthen cooperation for mutual benefit. The session was moderated by Dr Ian Storey, Senior Fellow of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme.
Ambassador Lambe began by celebrating the long history of the close ASEAN-UK relationship that has been strengthened in recent years by high-level visits between various UK ministers and the different ASEAN countries. With its recent admission as an ASEAN Dialogue Partner, he stated the UK’s hopes to promote the following key tenets in its regional engagement: (1) its commitment to multilateralism and the central role of the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific; and (2) to reinforce and support ASEAN centrality within this multilateral system.
Looking ahead, he sketched out the UK’s intent to deepen cooperation with ASEAN across its 3 sectoral pillars. In the economic realm, the UK hopes to promote a shared commitment to free trade and a rules-based trading system by working together with ASEAN on its priority areas such as the digital economy, sustainability, and post-pandemic recovery. Regarding the socio-cultural pillar, he indicated the UK’s intent to tap on its strengths in COVID-19 pandemic response to assist ASEAN through increased vaccine provision as well as financial support for the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund among others. Ambassador Lambe also stated the vital need for the UK to cooperate with ASEAN in its climate change and sustainability initiatives given the increasing severity of climate impact both globally and regionally. Thirdly, in the political-security realm, he reiterated the UK’s commitment to upholding principles of multilateralism and defending the rules-based order in the maritime domain, as well as collaborating with ASEAN in defence cooperation and tackling transboundary threats. Regarding the Myanmar crisis, Ambassador Lambe reiterated the UK’s support for ASEAN’s central role in resolving the crisis.
In her presentation, Ms Nouwens reiterated the UK’s multisectoral engagement with the region as well as its increased visibility over the years. While the UK can build on this strong foundation, she highlighted the need for the UK to enhance strategic communication of its engagement efforts. Firstly, in a similar vein to the UK’s Integrated Review Policy Paper, she suggested more detailed positioning of how Southeast Asia as a region is centred within the UK’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific. Secondly, she also highlighted the importance of signalling to domestic audiences both in Southeast Asia and the UK on not just the long-term visions and actions of the UK’s increased engagement in the region, but also the importance of ASEAN and the region to the UK’s national interests.
To that end, she recommended matching the strategic communications through consistency of action and messaging, as well as enhancing strategic bilateral dialogue with Southeast Asian countries. On the challenges and opportunities for UK regional engagement, she emphasised three key points: (1) the delicate balance between interests and values that the UK must manage in their interactions with regional countries; (2) the need to coordinate with other countries on overlapping priority areas of different Indo-Pacific strategies; and (3) the need to avoid a competitive EU-UK relationship within the Indo-Pacific which would be to the detriment of regional states.
Dr Pongsudhirak prefaced his presentation with his personal viewpoint that post-Brexit independence is a net gain for the UK, and that the UK’s charting of its autonomous path is a paradigm shift not just for major powers but for small- and medium-sized states as well. He opined that ASEAN welcomed the UK’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific as it provided an additional ballast of hedging in the region, given increasing US-China rivalry and a concern of diminishing ASEAN centrality and relevance within the Indo-Pacific especially with the rise of other regional groupings such as the Quad.
Dr Pongsudhirak cautioned that the regional landscape has changed, given the region’s battered economic growth following the pandemic as well as the increased divisions within the bloc across a slew of sub-regional and international issues. He highlighted the critical role the UK can play in the region, such as by assisting ASEAN’s pandemic recovery through vaccine diplomacy as well as mitigating the US-China rivalry. He noted as well the UK’s strategic edge in leveraging its institutes of higher education for expanding strategic influence among the many ASEAN youths who desire to study there.
The Q&A discussion touched on relevant issues including the possibility of an ASEAN-UK FTA, EU-UK coordination in their engagement with ASEAN, the UK’s possible participation in the East Asia Summit and ADMM-Plus, the UK’s engagement in a comprehensive climate partnership with ASEAN, practical measures for mitigating the Myanmar crisis, as well as the role the UK can play in the South China Sea disputes. Close to 170 attendees from the policy, diplomatic corps, business and research communities in Singapore and the region participated in the webinar.