The UK and ASEAN: A New Stage in Indo-Pacific Engagement

Flourishing partnership: ASEAN's headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image: Gunawan Kartapranata / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Jon Lambe, the UK’s first Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), reflects in conversation with RUSI’s Jonathan Eyal on the flourishing links with this multilateral organisation and the UK’s broader aspirations for engagement in the region.

Jonathan Eyal (JE): Rightly or wrongly, an impression was formed among commentators in ASEAN countries that, for decades, the UK was not interested in the region. Was this warranted?

Jon Lambe (JL): I have heard several opinions since I started this job. There was a sense that when the UK pulled back east of Suez in the 1970s, that implied less attention to this part of the world. Yet when I arrived in 2019 to start my current appointment, there was already a trajectory of increasing engagement that we were building on. The opening of the Mission is the culmination of at least a decade of deeper engagement.

And there are some milestones worth highlighting. In 2012, the UK signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, ASEAN’s foundational tract. In 2013, we re-opened our Embassy in Laos, which then meant we had Embassies and High Commissions in all 10 ASEAN member states. In 2015, we announced plans to create British Defence Staffs Southeast Asia. And what I have seen since I came here is a substantial warm welcome for the fact that the UK is doing even more to engage. And, of course, we have now become an ASEAN Dialogue Partner.

JE: For years, one heard criticism within ASEAN about the UK’s supposed obsession with sanctions on Myanmar, as well as allegations that this was a stumbling block in our relationship with the organisation. Of course, the question is quite different now that the Burmese military has re-imposed a lockdown on the country. Still, to what extent do you think there is a lingering feeling in the region that we are out of step with our ‘democracy promotion’?

JL: Since the coup in Myanmar last year, we have seen a united response from the UK and like-minded partners and ASEAN. We have a clear purpose that is strongly shared. I recently travelled to ASEAN member states for the first time in a couple of years, and Myanmar was a big topic of conversation. ASEAN members did so much, in particular, to support Myanmar over the past decade, so they have been as saddened as we have by what has happened since the coup. Furthermore, the UK’s sanctions are focused on the military while seeking to protect Myanmar’s people.

On the broader question of human rights, this is an area where the UK has a robust set of values and views. We have been forthright about it for decades, and rightly so. ASEAN is a diverse region, and it helps to come here with an understanding of that diversity so that when we promote UK values and human rights, we do so in a way that will be received and understood in the way we intend. We have good engagement with ASEAN member states on various human rights issues.

JE: It is fair to say that the response among ASEAN countries to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has varied. Except for Singapore, which joined in the imposition of sanctions on Russia, the others have taken a different approach. Do you see your job as trying to steady the response of ASEAN countries?

JL: Singapore’s use of sanctions against Russia indicated how seriously it takes this Russian aggression. Many ASEAN countries have expressed their opprobrium towards Russia’s actions, although, in general, sanctions are not ASEAN’s preferred tool. In debates in the UN General Assembly, most ASEAN member states voted to condemn Russia’s invasion and support Ukraine. So, although the way they respond and the tools and language they use might not always be the same as the UK, the sentiment is the same. Territorial integrity, sovereignty and the rule of law are foundational principles for ASEAN member states, and they feel as unhappy as we do that Russia has so egregiously broken those principles.

Many ASEAN countries have expressed their opprobrium towards Russia’s actions, although sanctions are not ASEAN’s preferred tool

JE: You mentioned dialogue as the essence of ASEAN. Some – including even local commentators – claim that the organisation is just a talking shop. ASEAN tends to coalesce around the lowest common denominator response acceptable to all its members when it comes to security questions. What is the UK’s interest in having you as a single point of contact?

JL: I have previously worked on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in a constellation of multilateral groupings from the UN down, so I have learnt that multilateralism is a game of compromise. Of course, compromise entails offering concessions on national positions. And the combined outcome may not be as strong as any one country hoped. But the advantage is much broader political traction because of the number of countries and the involved populations. Yes, one needs to do quite a bit of talking to get 10 countries with such diverse economies and peoples to agree on a common position. But I often feel that ASEAN is unfairly criticised, when I compare it to other multilateral groups.

For us, ASEAN is an organisation that brings together 10 member states and an incredibly dynamic economic region that sits right at the heart of some significant geostrategic challenges. It is also the foundation on which the Indo-Pacific’s broader multilateral architecture is built. From a UK perspective, ASEAN gives us an important additional platform to engage the Indo-Pacific region and reinforces our strong ties with its member states. Last year’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy included 11 UK cross-government objectives for our Indo-Pacific Tilt. One of them – to become an ASEAN Dialogue Partner – has now been achieved; I see my job as using the UK Mission here to deliver the other 10, all of which involve ASEAN to some degree.

JE: Occasionally, one hears criticism of the UK’s allegedly condescending approach to the region’s countries, often explained as a supposed relic of our colonial past. And others are claiming that the UK is a spent force, unable to compete with China’s growing regional power projection. Merely old tropes?

JL: These are, as you say, tropes. We have three Commonwealth members in the region: Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore, and all are fantastic partners. The UK is incredibly proud of the history that we share, and I am proud of the relationships we have.

But our engagement with the region now is diverse and goes across all 10 ASEAN member states. During my time here, we’ve seen the first foreign secretary visit to Cambodia in decades and the first ever defence secretary visit to Vietnam. More recently, the foreign secretary and the Indonesian foreign minister agreed on a huge new roadmap for UK–Indonesia cooperation. Thus, although we are proud of our history, ours is a forward-looking relationship.

And when it comes to military and security links, the Queen Elizabeth Carrier Group deployment was a huge endeavour, and it came through the region twice last year, notwithstanding the pandemic. We are also looking at working together on a much wider variety of threats such as transnational crime, cyber and other areas including maritime law.

ASEAN gives the UK an important additional platform to engage the Indo-Pacific region and reinforces the UK's strong ties with the organisation's member states

For ASEAN, the economic relationship remains one of the most critical parts. The UK is the fifth-largest economy globally and a huge proponent of free trade. ASEAN has recently completed one of the largest free trade agreements globally. I’m really pleased that total trade in goods and services between the UK and ASEAN was £38 billion in 2021, an increase of 3.7% from 2020. This builds on a strong trajectory over the past decade and demonstrates our shared interests in this area. And, as we saw last year with COP26, the UK is a global leader on climate change and we are working closely with ASEAN. Similarly, there are huge opportunities and a massive appetite to work with the UK on health and education. So, no: I do not recognise the tropes of the past.

JE: Would UK ministers find the time and inclination to attend ASEAN meetings, given the importance of the organisation’s ‘face time’ between member states?

JL: It is vital that ASEAN Partners invest time and effort; we must show up. I certainly see that commitment coming through in spades from UK ministers, as you can see from their frequent visits to the region.

Nor should anyone underestimate the value of ASEAN’s convening power, for it brings together so many of the vital Indo-Pacific players, making it a fantastic platform for engagement. As an example, when then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab came to the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Thailand in 2019, he met 23 foreign ministers in three days. Such convening power is to be cherished.

JE: By the time you finish your mandate, what would you like to be your single most significant achievement?

JL: I am incredibly proud of the work of my Mission and my colleagues across the UK and our friends in ASEAN over the past year, for together we achieved this formal relationship with ASEAN. I want to see us making the most of it by working even more closely with the whole of ASEAN and using it as a platform to deepen our engagement with the wider Indo-Pacific. By the time I leave, I think it will be a success if the UK-ASEAN relationship has morphed from something new and different into something right at the heart of our approach to multilateral diplomacy.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Jon Lambe

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