Lettice Bromovsky is a political commentator and contributor to Young Voices UK.
The UK has become the first country to join the ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations) as a dialogue partner in 25 years, bolstering its post-Brexit vision of “Global Britain” and further integrating itself into one of the fastest growing trade areas in the world.
Nevertheless, entering into this region comes with significant difficulties, and to put it bluntly, the UK will have its work cut out for it. The disparity of the countries within the ASEAN means that consensus agreements are difficult if not impossible to reach, and the encroaching red fog of China into the ASEAN region wields with it the growing concern of Chinese expansionism.
Deepening economic ties with the 10 member state organisation will be hugely beneficial for Britain. Boasting an annual GDP of £2.3 trillion, the ASEAN is now four and a half times larger than it was in 2000. Total trade between the UK and the 10 member nations of the ASEAN amounted to $45.5 billion at the end of Q3 in 2020.
Although there are substantial economic benefits for the UK joining, the region is plagued with an array of differing political systems and vast economic disparities. For example, Brunei and Cambodia are considered authoritarian regimes, whereas the Philippines and Thailand are deemed democracies. And while Singapore maintains a high median annual income of $59,590 in 2021, Laos’ median income remains low at $2570.
Unsurprisingly this often makes it difficult for the organisation to reach unanimous agreements. Indeed, a regular criticism of the ASEAN is its poor consensus-driven decision making approach. One particularly out-dated piece of legislation is the principle of non-interference, which prevents member-states from intervening in each other’s domestic affairs.
During the Myanmar Coup in February 2021 the shortcomings of this principle became obvious. When the UN tried to vote on an arms embargo to condone Myanmar for their clear violation of human rights, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei abstained. This principle is warping the moral fabric of countries, over fears that it could lead to greater economic instability.
As a dialogue member the UK now has access to the high-level ASEAN summits and other top-level discussions. During these discussions, Britain can encourage deeper reform and further political stability.
Another hurdle for Britain in the region is the ever growing dominance of Chinese influence. In 2010 at the ASEAN Regional Forum, China’s then foreign minister remarked “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact”. This brasen comment perfectly portrays China’s ingrained belief that small countries must adhere to the will of larger ones.
China has used the looming threat of sanctions or reduced Chinese investment as a way to control the ASEAN members and to further its own expansionist policy into the South China Sea, an essential trade route for all Asian economies.
Chinese abuse of power is not uncommon to hear or read about in the media. In fact, its growing regularity should be of great concern to western democracies. In 2012, the Philippines challenged China on its entitlements in the South China Sea. The dispute was brought before the international tribunal in the Hague. The Philippines won the case, but China refused to accept the ruling. Five years on, China still stands vehemently opposed to this ruling and has only asserted itself more aggressively in the region.
China has sunk Vietnamese fishing boats that were in contested waters between the two countries. It has occupied an exclusive economic zone owned mutually by the Philippines and Vietnam, with around 220 Chinese militia vessels. In 2020, a Chinese ship harassed Malaysian and Vietnamese gas exploits in their own economic zones. This is all on top of increasing military and naval exercises in the South China Sea as a flashy display of strength.
China’s inability to engage on a geopolitical level almost reached breaking point in recent foreign affairs. Last month a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson met with the Taliban, not only recognising the violent and oppressive organisation, but going one step further to reiterate that they were ‘ready for friendly relations’.
Even today the Chinese embassy is one of the very few that remains operational after the fall of Kabul this week. At first glance this could be interpreted as China losing allies and therefore reaching for those equally desperate, but the reality is China is only interested in its own economic stability. If the disruption in Afghanistan manages to overflow into Pakistan or Central Asia, then China’s economic interests and supply chains will be most affected.
Britain cannot allow this blatant abuse of economic power and bullying to continue. China’s strength and confidence to punish countries is growing, it was only last year after Australia called for an inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak, that China both verbally threatened, stating that Australia was treading a “dangerous path” and then economically punished the country by imposing tariffs of 80 per cent of Australian barley and completely banning beef from Australia’s four biggest abattoirs.
The only way we will be able to combat this kind of playground politics is from a unified front. Britain needs to encourage less economic reliance on China in the region. This can be done by solidifying free trade agreements with the countries in the ASEAN. The UK has already successfully achieved this with Singapore and Vietnam, but it is imperative that we begin to forge new ones with the remaining eight members.
A diversification of supply chains will also weaken China’s hold on the region as with greater economic diversification it will be increasingly hard for China to economically coerce the ASEAN.
If, or more likely when, China next attempts to use its size and might to further its own foreign policy, an unified process of imposing offsetting measures, such as tariffs will be essential in combating this type of bullying.
Chinese aggression cannot and should not be tolerated. A unified approach against this authoritarian power is the only way to combat Chinese influence and expansion. Now that the UK has asserted its place in the region, it must begin work encouraging the tenets of a free and democratic society.