By Rui Hao Puah
UK Prime Minister David Cameron picked Southeast Asia as his first major overseas visit outside Europe since his Conservative party won the general elections in May. His four-day trade and diplomatic mission from July 26 to 30 brought him to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam, in that order.
Cameron’s Asia tour came after a year of domestic focus on winning the general elections, and as he pushes Britain – where one in four jobs are export linked – to diversify its trade partners. Drawing upon Britain’s outward-looking spirit from a bygone era, Cameron urged his country to “grab opportunities” to trade with “far flung lands” in Southeast Asia in an op-ed in the Daily Mail ahead of the visit.
As its traditional trading partners in the European Union have faced economic stagnation, Cameron believes that Britain needs to rebalance its trade and tap into a fast-growing Southeast Asia. The region is predicted to be the fourth largest single market in the world by 2030.
London’s new economic diplomacy comes as Cameron is seeking to renegotiate Britain’s relations with the EU. The prime minister has said that he plans to hold an in-out referendum on the issue of UK membership in the EU.
Cameron announced he will make available up to $2.1 billion in loans to Indonesia for infrastructure financing, while a 62- strong delegation of northern UK businesses sought to win new contracts or expand their businesses in Singapore and Malaysia. In Vietnam, a $580 engine servicing deal was inked between Rolls Royce and Vietnam Airlines during Cameron’s visit. Cameron was the first serving UK prime minister to visit Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War.
Cameron’s agenda also included improved security and military cooperation with Southeast Asian countries. He agreed to provide greater support for the Indonesian government’s counter-terrorism efforts through airport security upgrades, enhanced cooperation on terrorism investigations, and the training of Indonesian police officers in Britain. Likewise, in Malaysia, Cameron discussed the growing threats that the Islamic State poses in light of a July terror attack in Tunisia, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility, which took 30 British lives.
Britain has been trying to build on its longstanding historical and business ties with Malaysia and Singapore, hoping to use them as a springboard to engage key regional markets such as Vietnam and Indonesia. In fact, choosing Indonesia as his first stop was a “deliberate choice” according to Cameron, as Britain sees Indonesia as a key regional partner and important actor in the Asia Pacific writ large, alongside China and India.
In Indonesia, Cameron sought to develop a bilateral maritime defense partnership following a “successful” meeting between UK and Indonesian navy officials in London the week before. Playing to Britain’s strengths as a seafaring nation, Cameron pledged to offer Indonesia expertise in maritime, defense, and space technology, as well as Britain’s knowledge of utilizing public-private partnerships to support infrastructure development, an area in which Indonesia desperately needs to make progress. Britain’s expertise in maritime capabilities such as radar technology might appeal to President Joko Widodo’s vision of developing Indonesia’s identity as a maritime power.
Cameron’s stop in Hanoi was also aimed at bolstering Britain’s defense cooperation with Vietnam. Hanoi and London upgraded bilateral ties to a strategic partnership in 2010 and signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation in 2011, with a focus on information exchanges and peacekeeping support operations. UK and Vietnamese defense officials agreed in early 2015 that defense industrial and maritime cooperation will be the new areas of focus in bilateral defense cooperation In a joint statement with Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to developing defense industrial cooperation and increasing military exchanges with Vietnam.
In addition, people-to-people ties between the UK and many Southeast Asian countries have been remarkably close. According to the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office, there were over 400,000 Southeast Asians living and working in the UK in 2011. Meanwhile, Malaysian students, which numbered 14,500 in 2013, form one of the largest overseas student groups at the tertiary level in the UK.
Cultural exchanges, however, are no substitution for direct and sustained engagement. On his 2012 visit to Malaysia, Cameron acknowledged that Britain, which had not sent a prime minister to Malaysia since John Major in 1993, is guilty of “benign neglect” toward a country with which it possesses strong historical links. Cameron’s recent visit is perhaps an attempt to correct that, but it remains to be seen whether London’s attention toward Southeast Asia will be sustained.
Britain may be back and open for business – as Cameron asserted in his op-ed – but if it wants to preserve influence, it will have to do more than just periodic trade missions.