These achievements reflect how post-Brexit diplomacy is moving at two different tempos. In Asia, where the Johnson government’s ambitions are lofty, high profile diplomatic agreements over long-term regional trade and geopolitical commitments have occurred quickly, encountering few obstacles.
In contrast, much closer to home, the UK government is grappling with the slow grind of a political and trade crisis in Northern Ireland and worsening relations with Europe. The fast pace of progress in Asia contrasts with the interminable constitutional and political challenge for the United Kingdom of keeping Northern Ireland within the European Union’s Customs Union as required by the Northern Ireland Protocol, which came into effect at the start of 2021.
These two diplomatic tempos are politically interconnected. The deceleration experienced in Europe, with its real effects on cross border and domestic trade within the United Kingdom, has necessitated an acceleration of UK diplomacy beyond Europe, especially in Asia. Diplomatic success in Asia is critical to the Johnson government’s promise of a ‘Global Britain’, a concept that serves to cover over the uncertainties of a post-Brexit future.
Not all these diplomatic accomplishments in Asia are equal. The UK–Australia trade deal and possible membership in the CPTPP are both evidence of progress, providing some scaffolding for the concept of a ‘Global Britain’. The Singapore and Vietnam free trade agreements, both signed in December 2020, simply reinstate trade agreements that were in place under agreements with the European Union prior to Brexit.
ASEAN Dialogue Partnership with the United Kingdom is more complicated. The United Kingdom will now have to wait until August 2021 when the formal process to become a dialogue partner will commence. If this process is successful, the United Kingdom will have more direct access to ASEAN and its dialogue partners than individual EU member states, especially through security related channels such as the East Asian Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus.
In December 2020, ASEAN upgraded the European Union to a strategic partner after long delays. The move was a subtle means of indicating that ASEAN leaders have a clear sense of the newly emerging geopolitical rivalry between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The remarkably rapid process of granting the United Kingdom its own ASEAN Partnership demonstrates a desire to not frustrate the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit need for speed, while also recognising that the European Union is the prioritised partner in the region.
Despite this new diplomatic competition, real changes to the United Kingdom’s role in Southeast Asia will come from future changes in trade, development assistance and geopolitical diplomacy. But these changes will not be straightforward.
If the recent UK ‘tilt’ to ASEAN is in preparation for an ASEAN-wide trade deal, this ambition will be difficult to realise. Enthusiasm among political leaders in Southeast Asia for trade multilateralism remains high. But domestic political pressures and concerns about industrial competitiveness, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines, will pose challenges to UK efforts to secure new free trade agreements in the region.
A number of governments in the region, Thailand and Malaysia for instance, have publicly expressed interest in pursuing new trade initiatives in order to accelerate economic recovery in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. But deep seams of anti-free trade sentiment exist within Southeast Asian publics.
UK development assistance will also change gradually in the short-term as the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office implements cuts to overseas development assistance (ODA) below the legally required commitment of 0.7 per cent of gross national income. Under recent conservative governments there has also been a gradual shift in development assistance from human development to defence and trade-related support.
Over the last decade, the United Kingdom has provided US$3.5 billion in official development assistance to Southeast Asian countries. It remains uncertain how these changes will affect the long-term effectiveness of UK development assistance in the region. But early indications suggest that steep cuts will be made to ODA in Southeast Asia.
Finally, the deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier group to the South China Sea in May 2021 clearly demonstrates that the concept of Global Britain is not merely about brands and trade flows. It also involves a new geopolitical vision of the United Kingdom’s role in the Indo-Pacific, to use the Johnson government’s recently adopted geopolitical category.
This vision has emerged in the context of a newfound post-Brexit confidence, or what Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss has referred to as a ‘patriotic globalism’. But it is also the case that the experience of Brexit has rekindled ever-present anxieties in the United Kingdom over the loss of empire.
As foreign minister in a 2016 speech, Boris Johnson rejected the dismantling of Britain’s military presence across its ex-empire — its ‘disengagement east of Suez’ — as a mistake. Now as Prime Minister, Johnson’s ‘tilt’ to Asia is intent on reversing this mistake.
Asia is increasingly becoming a space where the United Kingdom’s potential is seen as unlimited and the immediate, intractable complications of Brexit appear to fade away.
Carlo Bonura is a Senior Lecturer in Southeast Asian Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), The University of London.