Minister for Asia, Hugo Swire spoke about our partnerships across Asia and the Commonwealth as vital for our security and prosperity.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delighted to be here - and may I congratulate Asian Affairs on your 20th anniversary.
Two decades of world-class journalism, covering the fascinating continent of Asia is a remarkable milestone. Although I confess to being relieved that you missed one particular news story - when I struggled in high winds in the Gobi Desert to shear a 15 hundred pound Bactrian camel by hand. Showing that when it comes to building Britain’s partnerships around the world, personal dignity is sometimes a necessary sacrifice.
But like you, I find it a privilege to cover Asia in my duties as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister. A continent whose time has come. An essential partner for an outward-looking country like the United Kingdom. And that is where I want to focus my remarks this evening – on a theme of partnership.
Many now speak of this being the Asian Century. The prominent role Asian states play in the political and economic issues which affect us all shows a continent growing in confidence and influence.
And here in the UK, Asian communities make a vital contribution in fields ranging from sport and the arts to the heart of government.
That is why, since 2010, the British Government has refocused the UK’s diplomatic effort towards significantly upgrading our partnerships with Asia.
We have expanded our diplomatic footprint in India and China – most recently, earlier this month, I opened the new British Consulate in Wuhan. The first Consulate we have opened in China in 14 years.
Few European countries have as strong a presence as the UK in the ASEAN region, with a diplomatic mission in every capital. And since the opening of the Laos Embassy here in November last year, I’m pleased to say that all ASEAN countries are now also represented in London – a visible sign of our growing importance to one another.
And we have extended our collaboration with Asian states in areas ranging from science and innovation partnerships with Singapore, to security cooperation through our Gurkha Garrison in Brunei.
We have given aid to help those affected by natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan.
And in support of the UK’s economic recovery, we have promoted vibrant trade links with this most dynamic of continents.
The UK’s trade investment in India alone in the last financial year totalled £3.2 billion – the third-highest of all India’s international trading partners.
The 100-plus British companies operating in Pakistan ensure the UK remains a major economic player there.
British business wins in China rocketed to almost £3 billion last year – with Britain leapfrogging France to become the second largest European exporter to China.
And we have tirelessly promoted free trade arrangements - such as the one between the EU and South Korea which has more than doubled the UK’s total goods exports to £4.6 billion in four years. Challenges
But while our partnership with Asia is going from strength to strength, recent events have reminded us of the challenges that remain.
For example, we were all appalled by last month’s atrocious terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar. A school which I am very pleased has reopened. But which has underlined the need for us all to work together against shared threats to our security and prosperity.
So, as we get ready to mark the eight centuries since Magna Carta, I hope this Asian Century will see security and prosperity underpinned by good governance, the rule of law and respect for human rights and freedoms. Values essential to maintaining long-term stability and economic progress.
Less than a fortnight ago, the people of Sri Lanka showed a strong commitment to democracy through an exceptionally high turnout at the ballot box.
This follows last year’s peaceful transfer of power to newly-elected governments in Indonesia and India.
But against these successes, we must weigh the suspension of the Constitution in Thailand - where we have urged a return to democracy as soon as possible.
Or the general election in Bangladesh last year - marred by violence and non-participation – which still reverberates today. Again, we hope to see restraint and an end to violence.
Or the fact that for too many in Asia, the right to follow their religious beliefs is under threat, as we’ve seen in Burma and Pakistan.
And on an occasion like this, it is also appropriate to acknowledge the difficulties journalists face across Asia.
With many regularly facing restrictions, harassment, detention, and violence.
Showing bravery and professionalism in the face of threats takes a remarkable kind of person.
And I am conscious that I am in a room full of just such remarkable people.
As you will know more than anyone else, freedom of expression and the media are essential qualities of any functioning democracy – a basic right prized dearly by people across the world.
People must be allowed to discuss and debate issues freely, to challenge their governments, and to make informed decisions.
As the Prime Minister made clear after the terrible events in Paris, these values are “not sources of weakness for us, they are sources of strength. We stand squarely for free speech and democracy”.
That is why the Government actively promotes the importance of the safety of journalists in international fora and our funding programmes.
And why we continue to champion free media - and the vital role civil society and human rights defenders - play in sustaining and enhancing our democracies and our economies.
But, to achieve global prosperity and security it is more important than ever that we work not in isolation, but through partnerships – and not just partnerships between governments – but across parliaments, businesses and civil society.
And for me, one of the oldest and most effective international networks for partnership is the Commonwealth.
As Britain’s Minister for the Commonwealth, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I have a genuine respect for what the Commonwealth is and what it can achieve.
It is a unique organisation, linking its Asian members into a network spanning every inhabited continent. With a young, vibrant population of over 2 billion people. Building stability and prosperity through the values we have all agreed to in the Commonwealth Charter.
It is far more than simply a grouping of governments. The partnerships it fosters are multi-faceted. Some of you here are parliamentarians. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association brings together parliamentarians and clerks to learn from one another’s experience and promote robust systems for holding governments to account.
Others among you will be in business. A vital area where I believe the Commonwealth has so much untapped potential. That is why, last year, Lord Marland established the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council – which will run the Commonwealth Business Forum at the Heads of Government Meeting in Malta this year.
And I hope that Asian Commonwealth countries will play a full part in driving up trade - not just with the UK, but among all of the Commonwealth’s members.
Who knows whether I will still be the Minister for the Commonwealth after the General Election. If the worst comes to the worst – at least I have my new-found skills in camel shearing.
But whatever 2015 holds, as economic and political power continues to shift East, it is clear that Britain’s future is increasingly bound up with that of Asia.
And whether you are strengthening business links; defending democracy and human rights, or fostering knowledge and debate among the public - it is through the partnerships like the ones among all of us here in this room, that the Asian Century will achieve the security and prosperity we all want and deserve.
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