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The UK’s new Asia policy: a ‘multidimensional’ and independent pivot

Hugo Swire, UK minister of state at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office with responsibilities for the Far East, Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, Latin America, the Falklands, Australasia, and the Pacific.

Hugo Swire, minister of state at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office with responsibilities for the Far East, Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, Latin America, the Falklands, Australasia, and the Pacific.

 

President Obama’s ‘Pivot‘ or ‘re-balance to Asia’ policy stimulated a lot of thinking, including among European countries on how they ought to respond. In an earlier post to this blog, I divided their reactions into three categories: backfillers (leave Asia to Uncle Sam, and help by shouldering more of the burden of security in Europe’s neighbourhood), ‘me-too’- ists (let’s have our own ‘pivot’), and skeptics (Europe doesn’t ‘do’ security, and certainly not as far away as Asia). The British Foreign Office Minister of State for Asia Hugo Swire gave a speech that leaves no doubt about where the UK sits on this. Entitled “The UK in the Asian Century“, Swire’s speech at the Carnegie institute in Washington DC (on July 15) laid it on the line, not sparing his American audience. These are the messages and themes I noted:

1) Independent. This is not a policy of support for the US Pivot and the UK has no intention of leaving Asia to its American allies. This is a policy about UK interests in Asia, which Swire groups into three areas: prosperity, security and values (note the order). The speech began with a lot of history to drive home the point that the UK interest in Asia is deeply and firmly rooted. There is no antagonism with the US Pivot, though. The theme of independence was tempered by a recognition that the US and UK have a ‘shared interest’ in Asian stability and prosperity, and indeed cooperation could strengthen trans-Atlantic ties. However, there was no mistaking the tone of ‘we would be doing all this even if we had never heard of your pivot’.

2) Multi-dimensional. UK policy towards Asia will consist in cross-regional relationships, nurturing old friendships and developing new ones. Bilateral relationships like that with Japan, and multi-lateral like that with ASEAN – and through the EU. UK interests lie in three dimensions (a) Prosperity and Economy- free trade, exports, FDI, G8 and EU trade deals, bilateral trade deals. (b) Security- ‘make a contribution’ directly. That sounds like military deployments  (Brunei, 5 Power Defence Agreements, Naval HADR), but it can also be measured in diplomacy and support as in Mindinao and Myanmar. Bilateral defence and security cooperation, e.g. with Japan. Diplomacy: ideas, expertise ad capacity. (c) Values: Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law. ASEAN is particularly attractive as a driver of change on these lines. Values can also promoted through defence engagement, e.g. with Myanmar and now Thailand. And don’t forget, Hong Kong and DPRK.

3) Open to cooperation on UK and US common interests which lie in regional stability, open trading arrangements, Human Rights and freedoms, and the rules-based international system.

Mr Douglas Paal (moderating for Carnegie) focused on two areas of possible dissonance between UK and US policy. (i) British cooperation (with ships!) with US efforts to uphold Rule of Law in dealing with China? Swire pointed to ASEAN as the focus for the solution, which is ‘local’.  (ii) Tibet – is the UK going soft on Human Rights there? Swire says the position is not changed, and the issue is best handled through the bilateral relationship with China.

Questions came from the audience on North Korea and rights, democracy in China, stability in Pakistan. Swire pointed to the ability of the UK to get information into NK (via its Embassy and British Council activities). UK does not resile from commitments to Hong Kong. UK is sensitive to peace and stability in Pakistan because of the UK’s Pakistani diaspora and the risk of links to jihad in Afghanistan and also Syria. Speaking of Hong Kong, Paal noted how gratifying it has been to see Britain NOT dropping its interest in Asia after the return of the colony to China.

So it all ended on a friendly note. However, there was no mistaking the tone of the message: The UK has permanent interests in Asia and regardless of what other countries or organizations decide, it has a strategy – including a military component – for achieving its objectives.

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War history and the Commonwealth Pivot to Asia

There is something interesting developing between Japan and the old British-led ‘Commonwealth of Nations‘. Long out of fashion, the Commonwealth has been popping up again in an unexpected guise – the grouping of like-minded nations forging alliances with Japan.

Here are two recent examples :

1) Australian PM Tony Abbott’s speech to welcome Japan’s PM Abe on July 8, 2014 was a breakthrough in terms of the use of WWII history for contemporary geostrategic advantage. As I have suggested in this blog before (link), Prime Minister Abe’s ‘unapologetic’ style was seen as an opportunity for Japan’s adversaries to isolate it from partners and allies today. It seems to be working only in the case of South Korea, where Imperial Japan bashing is also good domestic politics. PM Abbott turned the table by acknowledging the respect Australians paid to those who fought for Japan in WWII:

“We admired the skill and the sense of honour that they brought to their task although we disagreed with what they did. Perhaps we grasped, even then, that with a change of heart the fiercest of opponents could be the best of friends.”

Abbott also made reference to the coming centenary of WWI, when the Japanese warship Ibuki escorted the Anzak convoy to the Middle East; another way of putting WWII history in a more nuanced context.
PM Abe was apparently prepared to reciprocate:

“Our fathers and grandfathers lived in a time that saw Kokoda and Sandakan.”

It was a reference obscure to many listeners outside Australia, but as a Sydney Morning Herald headline put it, Abe’s words caused the Australian Parliament to freeze in ‘a moment that stopped time’:

“…to Australians who know the story, it was the greatest atrocity of the Asian-Pacific war…In a world moved on and a region colliding in new ways, it was a moment to stop time.”

In his remarks to the Australian Parliament, PM Abe used stories of Australia and Japan’s postwar reconciliation to cement a very contemporary bond – a ‘Pacific community’ for the 21st century:

Australia and Japan have now freed ourselves from one old layer and are now moving towards a new “special relationship.” … Today, Prime Minister Abbott and I will sign an agreement concerning the transfer of defence equipment and technology. That will make the first cut engraving the special relationship in our future history.

It earned Abbott criticism at home:

“In his comments on the submariners Abbott verged on prostituting history for his own geo-political ends.”

And from abroad. In an editorial on 14 July, the Global Times said Australia was in no position to criticize China’s human rights record in part because it

“…used to be a place roamed by rascals and outlaws from Europe”.

But the response from China only confirmed that the post-war Asian consensus about Japan’s security role has been broken. Abe and Abbott’s bonding over shared war memories sent a new message – We fought, but with honour. There were atrocities, but we have put it behind us. Others may try to use history to divide us, but today’s common interests are too strong for us to let that happen.

2) The UK Minister for Asia, Hugo Swire presented the UK’s Asia strategy on 15 July, and had this to say:

More broadly, the Commonwealth gives a unique extra dimension to our relations with many countries in the region – those I have just mentioned, plus several of the Pacific Islands…We have reinvigorated our relationships with our Pacific allies Australia and New Zealand, not least through a highly successful AUKMIN process,..Although we are not a major military power in the region, the UK makes an important contribution. As well as our military involvement through the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the Brunei Garrison, the Royal Navy continues to work closely with counterparts from the US, China and Japan… With Japan, for example … our joint work has entered a new phase. We have made clear that we welcome a greater role for Japan in international peace and security, which will allow more practical cooperation with the UK and other countries in areas such as peacekeeping operations and humanitarian and disaster relief. During Prime Minister Abe’s visit to London, we announced we would develop a “comprehensive framework” to deepen our security co-operation. This builds on an agreement to collaborate on the research, production and development of defence equipment signed last year…The final pillar of our approach to Asia Pacific is the promotion of our values. Throughout the region, Britain speaks in support of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It is of course vital that like-minded countries in Europe and America, in particular, do so in a concerted and coordinated way…

Is this “The Rebirth of the (British) Empire“? Although there is some congruence with PM Abe’s ‘democratic security diamond‘, it is no use trying to frame the emerging alignment of nations on Asian security issues according to the old pink zones of Britain’s Empire. Anyway,  too many of the countries in question (Burma, Vietnam, USA) were never Commonwealth members anyway. However, we may see  more attempts to select from our common history and patch together a sense of historical community between Europe, America, Australia, New Zeland, Malasia, Singapore, India, Myanmar and the rest. Look out for commemorations of our alliance in WW I (so useful to contrast against what China and Russia have started to call the ‘war against fascism‘). Look out for other old/new allies to adopt the ‘put it all behind us’ line and incant about shared values of democracy, human rights, rule of law, and free trade. Never mind the patchy record of the old commonwealth on these standards – it’s the contrast that counts. As long as it comes across as the alternative to dictatorship, corruption and the state controlled economy, the message will be clearly heard.

 

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Australia and UK agree measures to cement UK pivot to Asia

Hague bishop 

At the latest annual ‘two plus two’ Australia-UK (AUKMIN) meeting on March 11, there were more signs confirming the UK pivot to Asia.

According to the UK Foreign office website, a “critical element of these talks will be opportunities for collaborating on defence engagement in the Asia Pacific region”.

Here are the highlights based on a subsequent report -

  1. When the Australian Minister of defence was asked about the possibility of a permanent UK base in Australia, he extended a broad invitation to British forces. “It will not be a basing, it’s an opportunity for them to utilise our facilities.“(And) we welcome such a similar utilisation at every opportunity for the Royal Navy or any other of the services from the United Kingdom to come to Australia and to interoperate with us, to train with us and to do things that are mutually beneficial.”
  2. UK Minister of Defence Hammond confirmed the UK is ready: “As our focus increasingly turns to the Asia Pacific, I would expect us to send ships more regularly in future into the Pacific, but I wouldn’t envisage at the present time basing ships in the Pacific. Extending visits on a more regular basis is likely to be our immediate objective.”
  3. The four ministers also launched a new dialogue on Asia, based (according to the UK Foreign Office website) on “a partnership between the British Ditchley Foundation and the Sydney-based think tank, the Lowy Institute for International Policy”. The first meeting will take place at Ditchley Park in June. “Its aim will be to promote our common interest in a stable and prosperous region.”
  4. The two governments signed a new agreement on diplomatic network co-operation that will see the Australian embassy in Baghdad move into the British embassy building to cut security costs.“This is about identifying the synergies that make our respective diplomatic efforts more efficient and effective,” UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

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Europe’s undeclared role in Asian security – time to bring the arms trade under strategic control?

eurofighterPeople sometimes ask ‘what should be Europe’s role in Asian security?’, but surely we have first to understand the role European nations and their institutions are already playing.

Something that doesn’t often get discussed (excepting the EU embargo on arms to China) is the increasingly important role played by Europe as supplier of defence equipment and technology to Asia, Continue reading

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Russia Pivots – Time to take notice of the Euro-Asia security superconductor

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It’s that bear again. Big exercises in Asia, and now this: Russia’s Pacific Fleet to Receive New Warships in 2014

Russia the double-headed eagle – It’s European, it’s Asian. Makes you think, doesn’t it? French built warship, Russian flag and soon to sail the Pacific. These are the first ships added to their Pacific fleet since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Continue reading

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New Europe and Asian security – my enemy’s enemy?

imagesPivot watchers may assume that what Don Rumsfeld called ‘new Europe’ (countries that joined the EU and NATO in latter post USSR years) are concerned at the US Pivot to Asia because the drawdown of America’s commitment to European security will reduce the credibility of the deterrent against Russia on their borders. Some members of ‘old Europe’ further west are Continue reading

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UK Defence Engagement in Myanmar

UK Defence Engagement in Myanmar

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Is this more evidence for the vigour of the UK Pivot to Asia? Myanmar’s President Thein Sein is visiting the UK and France. The  headlines about the visit to France refer to cooperation on energy and warnings on human rights. Is the UK alone in Europe in engaging with Myanmar on security issues? Or is Paris just being more discreet about such issues so as not to raise hackles in Beijing?

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More on the European Pivot – EU Pivot exposed again

EU Pivot Asia 1Thanks to Michael Matthiessen, the EU Visiting Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore for another voice on the European Pivot to Asia (see some related posts from this blog here, here and here)

According to a recent study by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), which tracked the perception of the EU in seven Asian countries, the EU is close to invisible. Michael Matthiessen explains that Asia is not invisible to the EU and it’s time to address this imbalance.

(First published in Global-is-Asian, Issue 15 (Oct-Dec 2012) by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS)

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Lindley-French’s Blog Blast: Speaking Truth Unto Power – NATO and Asian security connections.

Julian Lindley-French’s blog is always worth reading.

Regarding Europe’s position between the US and Asia, he had this to say recently:

“Within a decade all strategic relationships will have been transformed by the rise of Asia. Be it NATO membership and and its now plethora of partnerships they must all be seen in that context, i.e. part of a world-wide web of security partnerships. 
Why?  Because NATO’s true utility can only be defined once its place in American grand strategy has been established and that is a-changing.  Especially so as the more the Europeans cut defence the more reliant they are on the US.  Unfortunately, implicit in the ‘pivot’, the ‘rebalancing’, the ‘global Yank’ (shiver) or whatever one wants to call Washington’s potential zweifrontenskreig, a new strategic contract beckons between NATO and its erstwhile member America. That contract is essentially simple; NATO must take care of security for both members and partners in and around Europe to ease pressure on the US elsewhere. If not the American security guarantee will over time fade.”
An earlier entry on the China seas disputes is also well worth a read. JLF suggests that:
“[the]East China Sea dispute could in time be seen as the true beginning of a contest that will come to define the twenty-first century as much as the coming war between Iran and Israel; the struggle for power dominance in East Asia.”
I thought the two extracts make an interesting juxtaposition.

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A French accent to the European voice at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue

Three European nations – those referred to as ‘the big three’ in the corridors of the EU – spoke for Europe at the recent 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue. The UK sent the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, and Director-General, Security Policy. Germany sent their Parliamentary State Secretary for Defence. The most significant showing was France’s  Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who used a speech on Emerging Risks to Global and Asia-Pacific Security to communicate the intention of France, representing Europe more broadly, to step up its involvement in Asia-Pacific security.

France’s rationale was placed in the context of the rising economic importance of the region, the US ‘pivot’, and the inter-dependence of European and Asian security. France’s historical involvement and ongoing ‘territorial and military presence’ were noted to remind the audience that France had never left the region. Then the high rhetorical tone was brought down to earth by an honest acknowledgement that all this had been said before, but now it was “… high time to transform words into action“.

What kind of action does the Minister have in mind? I found three main lines of note: Continue reading

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