South-East Asia Forum

Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire spoke about the close relationship between the UK and South East Asia.

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

The Rt Hon Hugo Swire

Thank you Your Excellency Ambassador Minh for that introduction; and for hosting us here at the Embassy of Vietnam.

I must say that I feel quite at home here, having met Vice President Doan at South Korean President Park’s inauguration in Seoul just a week ago; and having had the privilege to host Secretary General Trọng and Foreign Minister Minh in January.

It is an honour to be invited to speak at the inaugural South-East Asia Forum.

This Forum, a product of the UK-ASEAN Knowledge Partnership we launched last year, will become a real asset as we build an ever-broader partnership between the United Kingdom and South-East Asia. Through its regular meetings, conferences and research tours, I know it will make a significant contribution to our mutual understanding and sharing of ideas.

The United Kingdom and South-East Asia have a long history of co-operation dating back to the eighteenth century. Our deep links endure, through a relationship based on equal partnership, respect and a desire to see opportunity and development for all.

Trade and investment is booming, supported by UKTI and the UK-ASEAN Business Council. Britain exports more goods to South-East Asia than we do to India or Japan; and British companies like Boots, now one of Thailand’s largest health and beauty chains, are doing excellent business. Inward investment from ASEAN countries is also strong, epitomised by the £8 billion revamp of Battersea Power Station, which a Malaysian consortium intends to start work on later this year. I look forward to visiting the site tomorrow.

The UK and South-East Asia enjoy a close relationship on defence and security – not least through our Garrison in Brunei, through our Five Powers Defence Arrangements with Malaysia and Singapore, and as of last year, through ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation – to which the UK has now acceded.

Links on education, research and innovation continue to grow, underpinned by the Knowledge Partnership to which I have already referred. New campuses in Malaysia from the universities of Newcastle and Southampton are strengthening Britain’s offer on education in the region, with Reading and Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University set to follow soon.

And both the United Kingdom and South-East Asia enjoy close personal links, with many thousands of Britons and South-East Asians living, working and visiting our respective countries. These are all visible signs of the strength and depth of Britain’s relationship with South-East Asia.

But we can and should go even further. So this afternoon I want to set out how I think we can work together now and in the future to increase further our mutual prosperity and security.

This room is full of experts on the region, so you don’t need me to tell you why South-East Asia matters to the UK. Its economic, demographic and increasing geopolitical weight is clear to see. So too is its strategic importance, sitting at the heart of an evolving regional trade network.

It is therefore unsurprising that we in Britain are investing time and resources – in a period of global economic difficulty – to develop relations.

Following the reopening of our Embassy in Vientiane last year, the UK is now represented in every ASEAN country. A new UKTI office opened in Cambodia in January to boost our commercial efforts. We are sending more diplomats to the region, and Ministers from across Government are visiting more often – myself included.

I was delighted to visit Brunei, the Philippines and Burma in December, and I look forward to exploring the region further this year. A visit to Thailand in May is next on my list.

Of course, we are in a competitive global marketplace and the UK is not alone in shifting focus to your part of the world. But I think that Britain has much to offer South-East Asia as a partner for prosperity.

The UK has one of the largest and most sophisticated economies in the world. We are among the easiest places to do business globally; with a highly competitive tax environment, a respected judicial system, and an exciting and culturally stimulating environment in which to visit, live or work.

Our expertise ranges from the creative industries to education, manufacturing and financial services. We have significant experience in Public-Private Partnerships and play an increasing role in Islamic Finance, which we are supporting through tax incentives. The United Kingdom will host the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum in London in October, and next week we will launch a Ministerial Islamic Financial Task Force to reinforce the Government’s support for this growing industry.

Britain is also a proven gateway to the £11 trillion market in the European Union.

Despite the speculation, the UK remains a leading force in the EU, and we think that our continued membership is fundamental to our future prosperity. But Europe cannot afford to be complacent. It needs to change – to become more competitive, more open to trade and less bound up with regulation. So we are pushing to cut regulation; to exempt Europe’s smallest businesses from European directives; and to complete the Single Market.

Reforming the European Union is important, but so too is building its links with the outside world. The EU’s links with ASEAN are already well-established, embodied in structures like the biennial EU-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, the EU-ASEAN Business Summit and the Asia-Europe Meeting. But we should strengthen links further, for instance through EU Free Trade Agreements. Negotiations for an agreement with Singapore have already been completed, and they are in progress with Vietnam, Malaysia, and we hope that in the next few days they will formally start with Thailand.

Such actions will help us to add to our commercial success stories. But to make the most of the opportunities, we also need to address market access. We want it to be easier for the UK to do business in places like South-East Asia. The economic integration currently underway within ASEAN – the ambitious plans to create an ASEAN Economic Community by the end of 2015 – should help.

But there are wider issues here around good governance and adherence to international rules-based systems. The UK has long been a strong advocate of free trade, and our openness has undoubtedly benefited our economy.

It is through this approach – one of openness – that we will ensure global economic growth in the long term. And achieving that openness means responding to two challenges in particular: protectionism and corruption. Both of these have crippling, long-term consequences that ultimately stifle growth and inflict damage upon our societies.

ASEAN countries are for the most part already ahead of the curve on this agenda. But we shouldn’t be complacent. South-East Asia is a diverse region, with countries at different stages of economic development and facing individual challenges. There is always room for improvement, and the UK stands ready to provide support.

These issues are particularly important in the context of Burma. As I’m sure everyone here will know, the British Government lifted its policy of discouraging trade with Burma in April last year. That was in recognition of the progress made, but also because we believe that responsible trade and investment can help to support its transition to democracy.

We have since engaged with the government in Naypyitaw to ensure that responsible business practices take root. We are the driving force behind their plans to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. And my colleague Alan Duncan, DFID Minister of State, announced yesterday that DFID will contribute £600,000 in funding to establish a Responsible Investment Resource Centre in Rangoon.

As history has taught us, sustainable economic growth will only blossom in an environment that is secure and stable.

By enhancing security and co-operation among its members and working with China and others, ASEAN has helped to achieve that environment. After decades of painstaking economic diplomacy, the region has become a powerful example of how prosperity follows peace.

It is crucial that peace and security is maintained.

Tensions over Asian sea lanes, for example, discourage investment and could have a detrimental impact on trade. With up to half of all world trade passing through the South China Sea, events there are felt well beyond the region itself. It is important that all parties resolve their differences peacefully and in line with international law – not least to ensure that the region can make the most of its significant fisheries and hydrocarbon potential.

Responding to such challenges won’t always be easy: none of us have identical interests, and competing interests inevitably lead to disagreements. But the obstacles can be overcome. The signing of the framework agreement in Mindanao in the Philippines, for example, brings real hope of ensuring peace in that region. After forty years of conflict and the loss of over 120,000 lives, Mindanao now has a platform to unlock its economic potential.

The UK is working actively on conflict prevention across South-East Asia. In Burma we are part of the Peace Donor Support Group to ensure co-ordination of international support. And our bilateral funds are supporting projects in southern Thailand, Aceh and Timor-Leste.

But on issues of security, conflict resolution and political reconciliation, I think there is scope for us to do more. In particular, to share experience. Europe has suffered much from conflict, and so in the past has the UK.

We stand ready to share the lessons of our successes as well as our failures. As a former Minister for Northern Ireland, I have a particular interest in this agenda. Our experience there – the long, hard road to the Good Friday Agreement and the reconciliation work since – may help in the search for solutions elsewhere. This experience is something we brought to the table as part of the International Contact Group that supported the peace process in Mindanao.

But this is not just about South-East Asia learning the lessons of Britain and others. There is much that we can learn from you too.

For example, with close to half of ASEAN’s population following the Islamic faith, I believe that the role of moderate and tolerant Islam in South-East Asia can offer a model for the world today. By spreading its message beyond your borders, you can make a significant contribution to global efforts to tackle extremism. I am pleased that we have agreed to work together with Indonesia, the largest majority-Muslim country in the world, on inter-faith dialogue.

This brings me onto the final point I would like to make today: that we in Britain want to work with South-East Asia outside its borders to promote global peace, security and prosperity.

By this I mean using our collective weight to tackle issues that are at the top of the international agenda. Because with economic power and growing influence comes responsibility. ASEAN nations are already playing a positive role on the international stage.

South-East Asian countries are making valuable contributions to peacekeeping operations across the globe. Indonesia alone contributes almost 2,000 peacekeepers internationally, which makes it the world’s 16th-largest contributor. Malaysia and the Philippines are not far behind. Brunei has played a role too, and I understand that Vietnam is planning for a peacekeeping deployment. All of this is most welcome.

The region is playing an equally valuable role in international efforts to tackle piracy. The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are all participants in the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. Singapore and Thailand have commanded Combined Task Force 151, a multinational force operating off the coast of Somalia. Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are also members of Combined Maritime Forces, a 27-country naval partnership.

But I think ASEAN states could be even more active. We need countries like yours to support global values and to uphold internationally-recognised standards on human rights.

We need your support on issues like Syria, Iran and North Korea. ASEAN’s strong condemnation of North Korea’s third nuclear test has helped to underline to its regime how serious the international community views their actions. Greater support for our efforts to encourage Iran to engage meaningfully with the international community over its nuclear programme would be helpful too.

And I think we should also work more closely to tackle what is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time: climate change.

In the face of immediate crises and global economic difficulties, it is easy to forget that the short-term costs of taking immediate action on climate change will be far outweighed by the long-term costs if we fail to act.

No country is immune from its potential impacts. Most of South-East Asia’s economic activity and population is located in low-lying coastal areas that are particularly exposed to extreme weather events and sea level rises.

Indeed, a UK-funded study by the Asian Development Bank has suggested that parts of South-East Asia could lose up to 6.7 percent of their GDP each year by the year 2100 if the worst predictions about the impacts of climate change occur. That’s twice the global average. And yet the region’s carbon emissions are set to double by 2030.

We need to find solutions now before our changing climate reaches a stage where it poses a threat to international security and prosperity. South-East Asia can and must play a leading role in this.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said in Singapore last April, that “Today Britain is looking East as never before.”

South-East Asia is at the very heart of this. It is a region of strategic importance, where for centuries people from across the globe have met to trade and share ideas. It has overcome conflict and other obstacles to create dynamic and innovative economies, and its global economic leadership is being translated into political leadership as ASEAN and its members become more active on the international stage.

It is characteristics such as these that make South-East Asia so important to Britain.

Today I have set out some of the areas where I think our countries can work more closely together. We share common challenges for which I believe we can find common solutions.

If we strengthen our partnership, building on our shared history and enduring links, we can promote peace and prosperity for our people and for people across the world.

Published 5 March 2013