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.