Lettice Bromovsky: Now that the UK has a firm place within the ASEAN bloc, it must stand up to China’s aggressive antics

27 Aug

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.

Daniel Hannan: Ignore the Europhile sneers. Joining the Pacific bloc marks the rebirth of Global Britain.

3 Feb

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

She’s unstoppable, that Liz Truss. The epidemic has put most Whitehall ministries in damage limitation mode, but the Department of International Trade is on a roll, signing 62 free trade agreements to date – plus, obviously, the deal with the EU itself.

Those who can’t bear the thought of Brexit succeeding are, naturally, scoffing. These deals, they say, are largely replicas of what we already had as EU members. Their new line of criticism is, I suppose, an improvement on the position that they took until 12 months ago, namely that we would barely be able to strike any deals at all.

But it’s still not true. Many of the “rollover” treaties go further in small ways: more generous quotas, fewer restrictions. True, these liberalisations are chiefly tokens of intent. But that intent is real. With limited capacity, our priority has been to negotiate new FTAs – that is FTAs with countries where the EU currently has no trade deals, such as Australia and the United States.

Where there are serviceable existing arrangements, we have tended to say, in effect: “Let’s leave things roughly as they are for now, and agree to come back to it next year”. Even in these cases, though, we have often taken the opportunity to go further. The UK-Japan deal, for example, is more comprehensive when it comes to services and cross-border data flows than the EU-Japan deal, even though the latter had only just entered into effect.

This week, Britain took a momentous step when it applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade zone comprising Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Again, many Europhiles are sneering. Joining a Pacific trade pact, they say, defies geography. And it is of course true that Britain is not a Pacific country (other than in the technical sense of owning the Pitcairn islands). But we have exceptionally close links to a number of CPTPP members. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Canada are common law, English-speaking nations. So, to a degree, are Brunei and Malaysia.

One of the arguments for Brexit was that, in the internet age, cultural proximity trumps physical proximity. That argument is stronger now than it was a year ago. The lockdown has habituated us to using Zoom or Teams for important discussions. When travel returns, it is hard to imagine that business people will be as ready to hop over to Düsseldorf for the day to make a presentation. If you’re online, Rotorua is no further than Rennes – indeed, nearer in the sense that it shares your language, legal system and accounting methods.

Another argument for Brexit was that, by global standards, the EU was a slow-growth region. That argument, too, is now looking stronger. Although we talk of the pandemic as a global event, the truth is that it hit Europe much harder than Asia, Africa or the Antipodes.

But the biggest difference between the EU and the CPTPP is that the latter is a trade agreement rather than a state-in-the-making. Its members simply seek to maximise their prosperity through greater specialisation and exchange. Joining the CPTPP does not involve making budget transfers to its poorer regions, or accepting the supremacy of its laws over our parliamentary statutes, or adopting a common flag, passport or anthem. Nor does it require a member to alter its standards on non-exported goods and services.

Viewed purely as a trade pact, the CPTPP is preferable to the EU because it elevates mutual recognition over harmonisation. The essence of the CPTPP is that its members agree to refrain from certain actions that would restrict free commerce. It is perfectly possible for CPTPP members simultaneously to have ambitious trade deals with each other and with the EU – as, for example, Japan and Canada do. On services and on professional qualifications, CPTPP uses a “negative list” approach. In other words, it assumes that whatever is legal in one state is legal in all the others unless it is expressly exempted in the treaty.

It is fair to say that the CPTPP is wide rather than deep. It does not go as far as, say, the Australia–New Zealand deal, which is arguably the most advanced on the planet. But, as Australia and New Zealand demonstrate, a deeper trade deal can nestle within a broader one.

Our aim should be to negotiate a deal similar to that which Australia and New Zealand enjoy with one another – assuming that is, that our protectionists in DEFRA and the NFU will let us. We should, in other words, seek both to participate fully in the CPTPP and, under its auspices, to secure even more ambitious agreements with the countries closest to us in terms of GDP per capita and regulatory interoperability – namely, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore.

Indeed, New Zealand, Singapore and Chile – three of the world’s greatest free-traders – are currently setting the pace when it comes to digital trade. If Britain peels itself away from the wary and watchful EU, which has never been comfortable with the free-wheeling nature of the internet, and joins these Hayekian states, it is likely to end up crafting standards on digital trade that every competitive country will want to adopt.

Finally, there is a geopolitical case for membership. Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Pacific deal at the last minute opened the door to China which, three months ago, created a rival trade pact with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and all ten members of ASEAN.

My guess is that the Biden administration will want to reverse Trump’s mistake. After all, many of its leading members had been involved with putting the Trans-Pacific Partnership together in the first place under Obama. British membership of the zone, as well as being in itself a useful counterweight to Beijing’s ambitions in the region, will set the context for UK-US trade talks.

To sum up, then, our CPTPP application will boost jobs and growth, strengthen the Anglosphere, improve the prospects for a bilateral American deal, accelerate our pivot to the fastest-growing markets on Earth, and elevate Global Britain. Not bad. Not bad at all.