Britain in Asia

Foreign Secretary William Hague said he hoped to turn our shared heritage, values and interests into common purpose and common action.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon William Hague

It is a great pleasure to be here in Singapore, a country I have long admired as a beacon of free trade and economic openness, a model of constructive foreign policy and an old and valued friend to the United Kingdom.

I have come here after visiting Vietnam, and hard on the heels of today’s British Prime Minister David Cameron, who visited just two weeks ago. I am here, as he was, to strengthen our relationship with Singapore and with the region, and to have serious discussions about the major challenges of our time: how we build a sustainable global economy, how we enlarge free trade and combat protectionism, and how we defend our common security. I am also here to talk business: to champion British companies looking to invest in Singapore, and to urge their Singaporean counterparts to do the same in Britain, as I have just been doing in Hanoi and will do again tomorrow in Brunei.

With less than 90 days to go before we host the Olympic Games in London, it is also a pleasure to recall that moment seven years ago when we were awarded the Games at a ceremony here in Singapore. And in the year of Her Majesty the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I am delighted that their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be visiting soon to celebrate our ties through the Commonwealth. As all these things show, the relationship between our countries is rich and it is deep.

I am grateful to IISS for giving me the opportunity to give the second Fullerton lecture today on the subject of ‘Britain in Asia’. That is an immensely broad canvas, but I will unroll it wider still during the course of my remarks, since I cannot speak about Britain in Asia without talking about our approach to foreign policy across the world.

My message today is that those who might think that British engagement with Asia is a thing of the past, or that we will become a partner of declining relevance, could not be more wrong.

Today Britain is looking East as never before.

We are setting our country firmly on the path to far closer ties with countries across Asia over the next twenty years; and on a completely new footing from the past.

Mine is the first generation in Britain that cannot remember the days of Empire, with the exception of the handover of Hong Kong which I attended. In all other respects, someone like me has no recollection of an earlier time, as I was a small child when countries like Malaysia and Singapore were gaining their independence. Today, our leaders and our people approach Asia in a wholly different spirit to the past - with a sense of equal partnership, respect and the desire to see opportunity and development for all.

We understand the immense potential of a peaceful and stable Asia made up of thriving and open economies.

And we welcome the prospect of a rich and strong Asia with an equally strong and growing role in world affairs.

Asia’s rise is good for the world, bringing millions out of poverty, providing new opportunities for global trade and investment, and helping to guard against global security threats.

We want Britain to be a leading partner with Asian countries in developing that prosperous future, in trade and commerce, in culture, education and development, and in foreign policy and security.

Our government will invest the time and effort to develop the political relationships and deep understanding to support this vision over the long term. Those countries in the region that choose to look to Britain will find a willing, active and serious partner for the 21st century.

We know that we are not alone in this new focus on Asia. At a time when the United States is shifting its focus towards the region and we wish to see the European Union take a more active role, there is a great deal for us to work on with them and many areas where we can align our efforts.

We are living through a turbulent period in world affairs. Economic crises have put the global economy under strain and are accelerating the re-ordering of the political landscape. The emergence of new powers means that the international order is in flux, as it is in your region. It is a more complicated international landscape with many more centres of decision-making than in the past, and our diplomacy needs to reflect that if we are to narrow these differences.

Our world is not settling into blocs that require nations to choose between East and West or retreat behind ideological boundaries. There is far greater scope for flexible relationships that cut across geography, religion and political orientation, and this is a change that we embrace in Britain.

And on top of this, the whole context in which governments conduct foreign policy is being transformed by the connective force of the internet, satellite television and mobile phone technology, all of which are putting more power into the hands of citizens rather than governments, and fuelling movements for change such as those sweeping the Middle East and North Africa today.

All these changes mean that our world is becoming increasingly interdependent. Conflict or organised crime in one part of the world undermines the prosperity and security of all, while climate change is a threat to the very existence of us all. None of these problems can be addressed through anything other than through global, multilateral efforts, and no country holds a monopoly on the solutions to them.

Our foreign policy cooperation already reflects that trend, and I welcome Asia Pacific countries’ contribution to military operations in Afghanistan, to development assistance to Pakistan and Afghanistan, to UN peacekeeping and to naval counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. But there is more that we can do to forge a more effective and stable world order.

Too often in the past there has been a tendency to overlook smaller nations in favour of the large. But one of the striking features of our networked world is the ability of small states to influence the course of world affairs in new ways.

Countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates played an absolutely pivotal role in the international response to Libya, and are vital partners on a range of issues including Somalia and Yemen. And Singapore, placed as it is between the Indian and Pacific Oceans - a true hub at the very centre of the fastest growing economies on the planet - has a valuable role to play.

Indeed, one of the lasting legacies of the founders of independent Singapore is that not only did they build a dynamic and thriving country from uncertain beginnings, but also one that is extremely well equipped for the 21st century. Openness to ideas, enterprise, and innovation; cultural soft power and an ability to work cooperatively with other states are among the greatest attributes for success in today’s world, and Singapore has these in abundance.
In this new global environment, we know that Britain’s national interest requires us to be outward-looking and diplomatically active as never before. Britian’s presence in Singapore is considerable, and growing: 32,000 people and some 700 companies. Many of them make significant contributions, whether it be Arup engineering and the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel, or Rolls Royce opening their state-of-the art campus at Seletar.

We must connect our country with new opportunities in the fastest-growing parts of the world, looking for new allies in foreign policy as well as new markets for trade and investment.

Our foreign policy must be truly global in reach and in outlook, and we must foster strong ties with individual countries as well as maintain a vigorous role in multilateral organisations.

We know that in a region as diverse as Asia there is no substitute for a deep understanding of individual nations, and for relationships that take into account their particular history, culture and perspective. Every country is different, and there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to your region or indeed to any other.

So we have set out systematically to intensify Britain’s economic and political connections with the new powers of the 21st century: in Latin America, in Africa, in the Gulf and here in the Asia-Pacific, where the greatest numbers of the world’s emerging powers and fastest growing economies are to be found.
Of the 29 countries we have identified for these efforts, 11 are in Asia, and we have put the need to turbo-charge our economic and political ties with them among the very top priorities of our foreign policy.

Asia is the engine of the world’s growth today, and we want to be part of that success story. In some respects we already are, and UK exports to the Asia Pacific region are up 20% year on year. But we need to do more. Creating jobs and growth in our economy like any other will depend overwhelmingly on expanding trade and investment- and we know that much of the opportunity for that lies in the vast markets of this region. So we have set ambitious targets to increase and in some cases to double our bilateral trade with China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea within the next five years, as part of a target to double British exports to £1 trillion a year by 2020.

We have significantly increased Britain’s diplomatic engagement across your region over the last two years - something you may have noticed in Singapore, where you have had a blitz of senior British visitors including our Prime Minister, our Education Secretary, Defence Secretary, Business Secretary, the Duke of York and our Foreign Office Minister responsible for Asia.

And we are one of the few Western countries to be expanding its diplomatic network at a time of economic crisis. We are doing this in more than twenty countries around the world, but by far the largest focus of this diplomatic expansion is in Asia.

We hope to open up to eight new British diplomatic posts in Asia by 2015, and we are currently discussing this with the governments in question.
Separately, by 2015 we will also have deployed around 60 extra staff to China, 30 to India and another 50 across our Asian network in Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Cambodia, Brunei, North and South Korea and Mongolia. We are properly equipping these diplomats, for example by increasing the number of our diplomats who speak Chinese by 40%.

As a further sign of the importance we attach to British diplomacy in Asia, I have announced today that we intend to re-open the British Embassy in Laos that was closed in 1985. Not only will we have an Ambassador and Embassy there for the first time in 27 years and be able to build a stronger bilateral relationship, but we will also then be represented in each and every ASEAN member state. We are deliberately doing this ahead of the culmination of plans to transform ASEAN into a single market and production base that is highly competitive and fully integrated into the global community by 2015, to the great benefit of the 600 million people who live in ASEAN countries.

These extra posts and diplomats are the physical proof of our desire for broad and deep partnerships with Asian countries for the 21st century.
We want to build on our natural alliances with Australia and New Zealand, our web of historic partnerships through the Commonwealth; and our longstanding and invaluable ties with Japan.

This includes intensifying our historic ties with India as it grows in size, wealth and influence. India’s rise presents enormous opportunities, whether through the mutual benefits of increased trade and investment or through its increasing responsibility in the field of international security.

We also want to continue to develop a strong and open partnership with China. Our shared interests outweigh our differences and they are growing all the time. This requires us to seize opportunities together, while being frank about our differences. This is not about containing China: the world needs China to continue healthy and sustainable growth. Just as we do not see a zero-sum game in foreign affairs, we do not see one in the world economy. We want China to succeed, and to play a more active leadership role in addressing global issues. We will continue to argue for European economic openness to China, just as we will argue for China’s continued economic opening to the outside world.

We are confident that Britain brings a great deal to these and other partnerships in the region.

Our economy has strengths that are relevant to the most developed economies as well as those still developing, ranging from our world-leading services in education, high tech manufacturing, low carbon technologies, the creative industries, life sciences, finance, insurance, banking and accountancy to our expertise in urban development.

We are the country that is the most open to investment in the whole of Europe. To take just one example, 1,200 Japanese companies provide jobs for 130,000 people in Britain, and new investments keep coming in. Our ambition is to make Britain the home of Asian investment and Asian finance in Europe, and we are backing this with steps to make our tax system the most competitive in the G20. We also want Asian businesses to look to British companies as investment partners in projects in China and elsewhere.

Across the board in international organisations we champion change and values that matter to many Asian countries:
In the G8, G20 and IMF Britain is an insistent voice in favour of free global and open markets, calling for nations to resist protectionist impulses and press forward on trade liberalisation. We support strong global financial institutions that enforce a truly global approach to financial regulation, leading to a more balanced, sustainable economy in which global finance is a force for good rather than a source of instability.

At the United Nations, we advocate an expanded Security Council including permanent seats for Japan and for India, and understand the need to work more closely on foreign policy with the emerging powers.

In the Commonwealth, one of the most significant business and cultural networks of the 21st century, we urge reform to help unlock its full human and economic potential and make it a more effective advocate of its democratic values.

And in the European Union, we are the leading advocate of lower trade barriers, the completion of the single market and of enlargement. We were at the forefront of efforts to secure preferential trading arrangements for Pakistan after its devastating 2010 floods, and are passionately in favour of ambitious Free Trade Agreements with the Asia Pacific region. We want to see a FTA concluded with Singapore this year, building on the success of the recent EU-Korea FTA, and momentum on agreements with Japan, India, Vietnam and Malaysia. This is a priority for our diplomats in posts in these countries.
Britain will always be one of the nations that support the effective use of the European Union’s collective weight in foreign policy.

Tomorrow I will be attending the meeting of EU and ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Brunei. We believe that it is time for the EU to be more vigorously and coherently engaged with countries of the Asia-Pacific within the limits of its competences; working to break down market barriers within Europe and between Europe and the rest of the world, championing free trade agreements, and working closely together in specialist areas such as disaster preparedness. This also involves being active on foreign policy issues in Asia, for example offering EU expertise to support regional integration in South East Asia, and taking a robust position on North Korean nuclear and missile proliferation.

We will champion a long term and coherent EU approach in the years ahead, while not detracting for one instant from our own distinctive British foreign policy and enhanced relations in Asia.

A case in point is Burma - to give it the name Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself uses. There, we have used our historic bilateral connections and our active role in Europe to good effect to support the people of that country.

When we look at the remarkable changes finally taking place in Burma after so many years, we are proud that we never wavered in our support for democracy, and that we insisted on real political and human rights reform as the condition for any move towards an open relationship between Burma and the Europe Union.

We are delighted that we are starting to see that reform. We still have concerns about Burma’s ethnic conflicts and about human rights, including remaining political prisoners. But we welcome the boldness shown by President Thein Sein and by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself which has finally placed the country on a hopeful path, as well as the efforts by several ASEAN members over many years. It will be a huge honour if she can visit Britain this summer for the first time in 24 years, on her first visit outside the country.

I visited Burma in January and our Prime Minister was the first Western leader to visit after the by-elections. Based on what we saw and heard, we led the way in calling for the suspension of EU sanctions which was agreed in Luxembourg this week.

Today, after discussion with Aung San Suu Kyi and very careful consideration, I can announce that the British Government will lift its policy of discouraging trade with Burma.

We believe that at this moment in time the right kind of responsible trade and investment can help aid the country’s transition.

We will put responsible investment at the heart of our future commercial relationship with Burma, encouraging investment that will benefit local communities and respect the local environment. We look to partners such as Singapore to support this approach.

To achieve this, we will aim to launch investment climate assessments for Burma with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. We will also fund programmes to bolster the rule of law and to plan how the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights might be put in place, and take forward work on how investment might contribute to that particularly helps poorer people growth. We are also in discussion with the Burmese authorities about opening a new diplomatic office in Naypyitaw.

As Burma illustrates, our approach to the Asia-Pacific is far wider than trade and commerce, as important as those things are.

It embraces the promotion of values that support democracy and prosperity and which have been at the heart of the remarkable journey taken by Indonesia among other countries in the region, and which are increasingly part of the discourse in ASEAN. And it reflects the reality of a world is which our security is increasingly indivisible. Whether it is the need for peaceful agreement over the South China Sea, which carries up to half of all world trade, or for effective action to combat extremism and terrorism, our security and prosperity are intertwined with yours.

We are a country that has never shirked its international security responsibilities, from our role in NATO to the Five Power Defence Arrangements which have now entered their 41st year. We are one of the few countries in the world that is willing and capable to deploy military force to address threats to human life or to security, as we did again so recently in Libya. We are not a significant military power in Asia, but our role in NATO, in the Five Power Defence Arrangements and our defence expertise as a nation mean that we have a role to play. This includes the military dialogues we are building with countries like China and Vietnam, which is another valuable aspect of our diplomacy in the region.

We are full of praise for the way ASEAN, by providing defence guarantees between its member states and forging harmony from diversity, is already contributing to regional and global security and stability.

Our wish to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation reflects our desire to see an even stronger ASEAN of the future, and to strengthen our cooperation on issues that affect security in the Asia-Pacific.

We cooperate constantly with countries in South East Asia on global counter-terrorism threats, helping to disrupt and deter terrorist activities, an area where Britain has unique skills and capabilities.

We help disrupt narcotics trafficking and nuclear weapons proliferation, and have worked closely with Asian partners to try to stop the spread of nuclear weapons particularly in the Middle East. We look forward to the signing of the P5 protocol to the South East Asia Nuclear Free Weapons Zones this year, which will bring the number of non nuclear states against which the UK has promised that it will not use, or threaten to use, its nuclear weapons to nearly 100. After Indonesia’s ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, we are much closer to seeing it come into force, and Britain will redouble its efforts to support that as well as a Fissile Material Cut off Treaty.

Additionally, we work closely with Singapore and other ASEAN powers on tackling piracy from the Malacca Straits to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden; an 18th century problem that in the 21st century has the ability to disrupt global trade and which thrives where states fail to join up their diplomatic and security efforts.

Last year, we held the first high-level inter-governmental conference on threats and opportunities in cyberspace, which is producing not only an emerging threat to global commerce but also new opportunities for technologically advanced countries like Singapore and the United Kingdom which lead in cutting-edge technology. Asia has over 1 billion internet users, an increase of nearly 800% over the last ten years, and more than Europe and the Americas combined. So I welcome the fact that South Korea will host a follow-on conference in 2013. No country can wall itself off from the risks of cybercrime or cyber-attack and we must all work together against this threat. But it is equally important that in taking steps to protect our citizens from harm we do not undermine the fundamental human rights and freedoms which apply as much online as they do in any other area of life.

We are working in support of President Aquino’s efforts to resolve tensions in the Philippines through the Mindanao peace process, along with Malaysia, Brunei and other international partners. I welcome the progress which the latest round of peace talks made earlier this week in Kuala Lumpur.

And we are offering UK expertise to support the ASEAN Working Group on Climate Change and commendable projects such as the “Heart of Borneo Initiative” on sustainable forestry.

As all these issues show, long term engagement with Asia is not an option for us, it is an imperative. It is central to our foreign policy objectives and will become more so over time, and I believe it is also in the interests of countries in the region.

If together we and our partners are able to continue down this path of stronger cooperation, we can look forward confidently to the future of this region:

One in which its major powers are working in partnership European countries with the US and with other partners around the world to help build a stronger rules-based international system; in which conflict has become unthinkable and territorial disputes have been resolved; and in which nuclear proliferation has been rolled back, poverty alleviated, and sustainable growth ensured.

By any account, Singapore will no doubt make its mark on this in the coming years.

You have shown time and again your ability to transform and reinvent the basis of your success and to maintain your openness.

Your values of resilience, hard work and determination make you a valuable partner as well as a successful nation.

In 1819 Raffles wrote of Singapore “here is all life and activity; and it would be difficult to name a place on the face of the globe with brighter prospects.”

How right he proved to be. So in this hub of ideas and enterprise and at this time of change in world affairs, I can confidently assert that far from turning away from your region Britain embarked on an entirely new effort to enhance ties across the region.

We will be a consistent partner over the coming years; respecting diversity, working with the grain of the region; listening to advice from those who know it best; and building mutually beneficial and deep relationships in trade, security and diplomacy. We don’t take our ties for granted or think for a moment that we can trade on history to get a free pass.

So in all the areas I have described, in Singapore and across the Asia-Pacific, we hope to turn our shared heritage, values and interests into common purpose and more importantly, into common action.

Published 26 April 2012