Putrajaya forum

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech by Gerald Howarth, Minister for International Security Strategy.


Chairman, fellow defence ministers, ambassadors, high commissioners, chiefs of staff, ladies and gentleman, I am delighted to be here in Kuala Lumpur, my second visit to Malaysia in four months and hot on the heels of my prime minister, David Cameron.

As David Cameron said:

Malaysia is now a real economic heavyweight and an influential actor in the region, in the Commonwealth and beyond.

His visit here has been part of a determined re-engagement with Malaysia and countries in this region. As he made clear, the era of “benign neglect” is over. Britain is back and is ready to do business in this region. This will be good for all our economies, and for the region’s security interests.

The delegation he led, of some of Britain’s top business people, including representatives of UK defence industries, is just one of many delegations from Britain to this part of the world over the last 18 months.

This week I am leading a delegation of around 40 British defence and security companies, many involved in joint ventures with Malaysian companies or businesses from other countries in the region, at DSA.

Trade links reinforce security relationships.

Britain in Asia

Britain is here to do business, to re-invigorate old friendships and to build new partnerships.

With many countries we have a shared history which brings us together. That is particularly the case here in Malaysia, with which the UK shares a relationship stretching our 2 centuries.

As PM Najib reminded us earlier this week:

We should celebrate these historic ties, both big and small, between our nations and renew them for this generation.

Let’s make sure we have a great future too.

And that future includes security co-operation.

From the operation to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, to the routine presence of Royal Naval vessels, to Gurkhas in Brunei, Britain has a significant defence footprint in the region.

Our recent strategic defence and security review was designed to maintain Britain’s strategic reach.

This is bolstered by our permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, and by our membership of NATO, the EU, and the Commonwealth. In this region we remain a committed partner in the Five Power Defence Arrangements, an alliance which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, further enhanced by our strong bilateral partnerships.

And, of course, all this is underpinned by the 4th largest defence budget in the world.

My colleagues and I from the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence have held high level talks with many in this region, and our military service chiefs have engaged widely with their counterparts.

Over the past 18 months, we have signed 3 defence treaties and 33 memoranda of understanding, including with traditional partners like Australia and New Zealand, but also with Asian powers such as India, and new friends in this region such as Vietnam.

As this last week has shown, we intend to continue this process.

Strengthening defence ties with Malaysia as our prime ministers agreed.

Moving towards a new defence co-operation memorandum with Japan and exploring defence industry collaboration.

All this action is a measure of the importance the UK places in our engagement in the region as a whole and reflects our determination to build a new calibre of partnership for a new age.

Old friends, new partners

This is an age of uncertainty, volatility, and change; as events in the Arab world are showing.

An age of emerging powers, not bipolar as in the Cold War, but multi-polar, where no single region or small group of countries can call all the shots.

And an age where we are more connected than ever before; our economies, our people, our future.

It’s also an age when countries have united to tackle oppression by governments against their own people. In some instances the weight of world opinion combined with internal outrage has thankfully been sufficient to achieve change relatively peacefully, as in Tunisia and Egypt.

Elsewhere, most recently in Libya, the crimes being threatened against part of the population have required external, UN-authorised assistance to protect civilians from the worst excesses of their own government.

In Syria, today, we watch closely to see if a UN-brokered peace deal will bring that country back from the brink.

We wait to see also if international pressure, combining sanctions and diplomatic engagement, will persuade Iran that it must submit to the will of the international community and accept that only the peaceful use of nuclear energy is acceptable.

In Britain, we welcome the emergence of this region as one of the centres of global power. You have twice as many of the world’s top-30 richest cities than has Europe; and growing populations with rising ambitions.

This growth brings with it great developmental benefits to the people who live here, but it also brings new responsibilities to those who govern.

As David Cameron argued last week, those who benefit from increased trade and prosperity in an interdependent global economy have a responsibility, indeed an obligation to help maintain global security. It means standing up and being part of the solution to insecurity wherever it emerges, and not just being an onlooker.

That is why the United Kingdom welcomes the fact that countries here in Asia are playing an increasingly strong role in maintaining the international stability and security required to sustain growth and global prosperity.

In the Gulf, off the Horn of Africa, here, and elsewhere, our navies operate together in international waters, protecting vital trading sea lanes from piracy. Forces from Malaysia, Japan, China, India, Singapore, Thailand, and the Republic of Korea to name just a few, besides traditional partners such as Australia and New Zealand work regularly and well alongside the EU, NATO, and other national forces.

This co-operation is a recognition that very few nations, no matter how rich, can hope to provide for the security of their people by working alone.

For most, therefore, partnership is necessary, not optional.

The responsibility of power calls for a responsibility to collaborate and find shared solutions to shared problems. Despite the obvious challenge, this is precisely what Britain and France are doing in the European context.

Perhaps you could explore similar opportunities in this region.

Both the continents of Asia and Europe rely on being able to trade with one another, and with other regions beyond, to grow economically. We therefore have a major stake in keeping open the trading links between us and facing down those who threaten them for their own national interests.

Multi-layered security

So how can this region manage the inevitable tensions which may arise when growing prosperity, growing defence budgets and the growing strategic interests of countries in the region collide?

Competition is healthy, but it has to be ordered by alliances, treaties and recourse to international law, or else aggressive competition for resources or strategic advantage will ultimately threaten security, stability and prosperity.

That would be a lose-lose situation for everyone: instability, insecurity, and all threatening economic growth and development.

The answer has to be to find the right multinational security structures and organisations which can best provide for the greater good.

Of course the United Nations, its security council, and other global organisations exist for that purpose, but regional security solutions to regional security problems are preferable, particularly where the issues straddle borders. As the Gulf states have shown through the Gulf Co-operation Council.

This is not about giving up national power or about ceding sovereignty; it is about solving problems by coming together and working out the best way to avoid conflict and ensure that each country’s rights and economic interests are properly respected.

As a mature organisation, designed to promote co-operation, ASEAN has the potential to be a platform for developing consensus and helping to drive regional security collaboration.

But it is the political will of its members to build capacity which is paramount.

And the United Kingdom stands ready to provide practical help in the development of a cohesive and proactive ASEAN if requested.

But we do not believe that security is served by an approach of putting all your eggs in a single basket.

We believe that an approach which provides for multi-layered security, multilateral organisations like ASEAN supported by smaller group co-operation and bi-lateral relationships which can be swifter to act, more flexible in approach and generating real deployable capabilities in a crisis situation, offers the most practical solution.

Even in Europe, we sometimes struggle to co-operate effectively, so I know how difficult it can be for sovereign nations with different cultures and different political systems to find common ground.

However, if sufficient political will exists to tackle a problem, you will find solutions.

The strategic challenge for ASEAN is therefore whether its member states continue to act unilaterally or whether they have the desire, and sufficient common national interest, to pool military resources for the betterment of regional and global security.

This is not a question I believe ASEAN could have asked itself even a decade ago. But I firmly believe it can ask of itself now:

Do you want to help shape global security, or merely observe the actions of others?

That is the key question I pose.


Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud and honoured to be representing the UK in Malaysia at the Putrajaya forum.

My colleague and fellow minister of the crown, Lord Astor, spoke at the Jakarta International Defence Dialogue last month.

And Britain will send a high level delegation to the Shangri-La dialogue in June, as we have done for successive years.

We are here as long-standing friends, as partners, to collaborate and to co-operate.

In Malaysia you have a saying: ‘if it is heavy, we carry it together on our shoulders; if it is light, we carry it together in our hands’.

Britain is here with our hands, and with our shoulders, to help carry the load, to work with you to find the best solutions.