Minister for Asia Hugo Swire's speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies
It’s great to be back here in the US. I’ve just come from four days in Texas, where as you would expect there was much talk of the Presidential election, which we are all following closely in the UK, and I suspect some of you are following developments in the UK as well. Last time I spoke in Washington on this theme, was two years ago, I set out what the Asian Century means to the UK. This time I want to make a more specific proposition.
That proposition is as follows. In the 20th Century, the UK and US co-operated alongside others to establish the modern, rules-based, international system; one based on a primarily Trans-Atlantic set of issues. In the 21st Century, we need to cooperate more in a different geography – an Asia Pacific one; and this time, instead of creating an international system, we need to work to ensure that the current system evolves to remain effective and relevant and that new powers are bound in to the rules.
To achieve this, we, like the US, will need to work even more closely with allies and partners, both in and beyond the region. Of course, in the US you have had a substantial presence in Asia Pacific for decades, which you have strengthened in recent years through the Rebalance. Defence Secretary Carter’s visit last week reaffirmed once more that the region commands senior US attention. We in the UK have also recognised and acted on the need to shift more of our diplomatic focus and tools to Asia Pacific.
Last week the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, visited Hong Kong, China, Japan and Vietnam – his fourth visit to East Asia in the space of sixteen months. The regularity of his visits to the region reflects our commitment. The spread of countries he has visited demonstrates the span of our interest, across the whole region, not just any one country. In my four years as Minister for Asia, I have sought to ensure that we have dedicated the necessary resource to support our All of Asia commitment, and to encourage my Ministerial colleagues to make regular visits to the region.
Trade is an important part of that equation. We have been a leading European voice in championing free trade with Asia Pacific and worldwide. Today, the UK also benefits from our EU membership to secure our trade interests and increase our influence. The direct benefits that flow through trade deals are essential to our prosperity. UK exports under the EU-Korea Free trade agreement, for example, more than doubled between 2011 and 2014, to over $6 billion. We are selling ten times more jet engines to South Korea than we were in 2011, and car exports are up 87%. The US and EU objectives on trade are complementary: we are seeking better market access, fewer restrictions on our investments and better and more predictable environments for business. As the US pursues TPP to push up standards in these areas, so the UK leads the EU to seek similar outcomes with the economies of the region. But trade is only part of the equation.
We are all familiar with joint UK and US diplomatic efforts in many parts of the world, such as stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, or standing up to a revanchist Russia. But we are less accustomed to discussing our partnership in the Pacific. I want that to become as normal and frequent as our discussions of Trans-Atlantic challenges.
Let me pause for a moment to reflect on a truly symbolic event which took place one week ago in Hiroshima. Your Secretary of State, John Kerry, stood beside our Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, at the Peace Park. With the benefit of many decades of hindsight, we can see what a national catastrophe the Second World War was for Japan. We can also see how difficult it remains, even 70 years on, to achieve full reconciliation in Asia.
So this year, with Japan chairing the G7 group of like-minded partners, and Allied Ministers visiting Hiroshima, shows us how far we have come to re-establish trust and partnership.
This trust and partnership is not just an intellectual exercise. Last year Japan passed significant new security legislation which removes the final legal barrier to a more proactive Japanese posture overseas, and allows for a greater Japanese contribution to international security. We welcome that move, and encourage Japanese involvement in global security challenges. In this vein, we support Japan’s bid for a permanent Security Council seat. We are deepening our security co-operation, with the first UK-Japan air force exercise due in the autumn, involving an RAF Typhoon squadron. That exercise was announced by Foreign and Defence Ministers after the second round of UK-Japan security and defence talks in Tokyo. Incidentally, whilst in Tokyo the Ministers visited the US naval aircraft carrier ‘USS Ronald Reagan’ in Tokyo harbour.
And also this year, the G20 group of major economies is hosted by China. This group, which was forged during the most serious global economic crisis since the great depression, seemed radical eight years ago. Would such a disparate grouping have the coherence and common purpose to contribute to global goods and stability? Today, we look at China, the world’s second largest economy, accounting for around one third of all global growth, and take for granted its important role in shaping global economic policy.
In recent years we have reformed voting in the Bretton Woods institutions to give China a louder voice, in line with its increased contributions. The launch of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank in January this year has demonstrated that China could successfully initiate a new international institution that will adhere to international standards of best practice, as is clear from its recently published environmental and social framework. The fact it will be a genuinely multinational and democratic body is due in large part to the role that the UK, working with others, played in shaping its formation. The AIIB will be complementary to existing multilateral banks, most notably the Asian Development Bank, with which it will co-finance its initial projects. We are well represented within the Bank, with former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Sir Danny Alexander appointed Vice President, and the UK leading a constituency of non-Eurozone European countries. China wants to play an increased role in the international system, and it has the will and wherewithal to do so. Our engagement, constructive criticism and sharing of expertise are crucial to ensure that this enhances the existing system, rather than undermining it.
The dynamic shift under way in Asia Pacific is not simply a question of great power politics: it reflects important trends within nations. Another recent development with implications for the wider region and beyond is the democratic election of a new National League for Democracy Government in Burma, marking a return to democracy after decades of military rule. The release of political prisoners over the last week is a welcome sign of that return to democracy and an important step forward for the new government. We will be encouraging the new government to build on this early demonstration of commitment to human rights and rule of law, and providing practical support.
Beginning to tackle the issue of Rakhine and the appalling treatment of the Rohingya community will be a particular test of the NLD-led administration. Alongside the US, the UK has played a leading role in keeping Rakhine in the international spotlight. While the solution to Rakhine must come from within Burma itself, there is a supporting role for the UK and likeminded states. We have been clear that the new government must use its substantial mandate to begin making progress.
The other pressing issue facing Burma’s new government will be reinvigorating the process seeking to bring an end to more than fifty years of conflict. We have played a lead role in supporting the peace process, and we are offering continued support to the new NLD-led administration. Burma’s transition is a good sign for the wider region, where democratic institutions are not always succeeding. The UK has pursued agile diplomacy and development support, together with the US, and it has paid off.
Of course Burma’s is not the only reconciliation process going on in the region. In Cambodia we support the Khmer Rouge Tribunal to ensure there can be no impunity for the worst of crimes. This is a vital mechanism for the Cambodian people to establish the truth and bring about reconciliation between communities, as well as an important ingredient to build a peaceful and inclusive society, and we believe it sends a strong message on accountability and fundamental Human Rights in the region.
I do not want to give the impression that we think everything across Asia Pacific is inexorably moving in the right direction. The regime in North Korea has shown in recent days that it remains dangerously willing to provoke its neighbours and a very real threat to regional and global security. The failed launch of its intermediate ballistic missile on Friday is just another example of this increasingly provocative behaviour. North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons remains a gravely concerning international issue: proactive UK diplomacy and engagement with the regime is used to deliver frank and robust messages, in support of the international concern that this programme is halted.
We must exert pressure through sanctions on the North Korean regime to deter it from this dangerous pursuit of nuclear weapons, and be united in condemning the continued violation of UN Security Council Resolutions by the regime. The UK worked closely with the US in securing the latest UN Security Council Resolution 2270, which contained some of the toughest measures yet – designed to restrict technology transfers and impede efforts to secure a deployable nuclear weapon. We are working alongside the US to ensure that others implement it fully and effectively.
Through our Embassy in North Korea we pursue a policy of critical engagement, taking every opportunity to send tough messages to the regime about its nuclear programme and appalling human rights record. It is unconscionable that amid reports of widespread hardship amongst the North Korean people and human rights abuses committed by the state, the regime continues to prioritise the development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes over the well-being of its own people. We cannot rule out dialogue or even a return to talks, but North Korea should be very clear that this can only happen if de-nuclearisation is firmly on the agenda.
Elsewhere in the region, the growing tensions in the South China Sea are driven by an assertive Chinese approach, demonstrated by an increase in land reclamation and militarisation. This is worrying for regional stability, for the principle of freedom of navigation, and for the rules-based international system on which we all rely. The visit last week of a high-level delegation of Chinese military officers led by General Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, to the Spratly Islands, will do little to calm those rising tensions. The G7 Foreign Ministers’ Statement on Maritime Security last week was an important signal to all claimants, setting out the expectation of the international community for a rules-based approach to the disputes.
Like the US, the UK does not take a position on the underlying sovereignty claims, but we do take a firm view on how those claims should be pursued. Disputes should be settled peacefully and in line with international law, and any actions liable to raise tensions, including militarisation, should be avoided. The maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight is non-negotiable. We recognise and support the US role in defending those principles in Asia Pacific, a role we saw reinforced just last week when Defense Secretary Carter visited the region.
We are following closely the arbitration case in The Hague brought by the Philippines. We consider any ruling to be binding on all parties, as provided for by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. We also see the ruling as an opportunity for the governments in China and the Philippines, be it under the current or next administration, to engage constructively in renewed dialogue. In our response to this ruling, the UK will stand alongside the US and the wider international community.
I have focused so far on security challenges because these are the issues where the costs of miscalculation are highest. To ensure a consistent approach, we are strengthening security relationships with our Asia Pacific partners, including those who are our traditional allies, such as Australia and New Zealand, who bring an increasing range of assets and influence to bear in Asia Pacific. We are deepening our security relationship with the Republic of Korea too, working together on maritime and cyber issues. We recently made our largest ever deployment there for the recent military exercise, ‘Operation Key Resolve’, working closely with the US.
We will continue to speak up loudly in support of rules, and against coercion. We will ensure that the EU remains robust in the same vein. And we will continue to co-ordinate closely with the US as we do so. Projecting our values
I would also like to touch on the way we project our values in Asia Pacific. The British brand is strong in Asia Pacific in many areas, particularly innovation, creativity and education. This is at the core of our commercial success and we seek to develop that as the emerging middle class grows. But a brand like ours cannot exist in a vacuum. It needs to be based on associations with the protection of rights, freedoms and rule of law. That is why we put effort into promoting values, even in environments where this is difficult.
Our commitment to Hong Kong remains as strong as ever. We have a strong legal interest in the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration to protect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. We have a moral and political responsibility to report to the British Parliament on Hong Kong. We have a commercial interest in an independent judiciary to protect the 126 UK companies headquartered in Hong Kong. And finally we have enduring personal connections, which mean we need the rule of law to ensure the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary reiterated our concerns in Hong Kong and Beijing over the disappearance from Hong Kong of a British citizen, making clear that it constitutes a breach of the Joint Declaration and calling on China to reinforce its commitment to Hong Kong’s current status under ‘One Country, Two Systems’.
More broadly with China, we continue to take a proactive approach to influencing on human rights and rule of law. We set out our concerns regularly – China will feature in the latest version of our global Human Rights report which will be published this week. We also raised our concerns at the Human Rights Council in Geneva last month. As well as our own national statement, we fully endorsed the statement signed by the US and a broad coalition of states, which made very clear our assessment of China’s deteriorating human rights record.
So Asia Pacific today presents us with cause for celebration and concern. We celebrate its economic rise, its dynamism and the opportunities this presents us, and applaud the work done by so many to embed diplomacy and the rule of law in transitioning nations. Asia Pacific is at the heart of the global system, yet arguable has the potential to fracture the hard-won international system of rules and law, should we not stand up for it.
The UK has already firmly signaled its renewed focus on the region: this focus will continue. We will continue to use agile and smart diplomacy in an Asia-Pacific century to confirm our relationships and build new ones. We will continue to work in partnership to ensure that the order which has served the global community so well for 70 years remains fit for purpose. And we stand side by side with the US in this aim. Thank you.