From Benign Neglect to Effective Re-engagement? Assessing British Strategizing and Policies Towards Southeast Asia Since 2010.

AuthorHaacke, Jurgen

In April 2012 in Malaysia, Prime Minister David Cameron raised a toast to a new chapter in UK-Southeast Asian relations, declaring "the era of benign neglect is over". (1) Since then, British efforts to re-engage individual countries in Southeast Asia diplomatically, militarily and economically have maintained considerable momentum. This momentum accelerated further following the referendum on 23 June 2016 on Britain's membership in the European Union (EU) in which 51.9 per cent of those who voted opted to leave. With Brexit on the horizon, Britain has also sought to develop a new partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). (2) Having enunciated a narrative of "Global Britain" and an "All of Asia" policy", (3) while policymakers have on different occasions also embraced the Indo-Pacific concept, the most head-turning aspects of Britain's recent re-engagement with Southeast Asia, and the wider region, have arguably been the Royal Navy's near continuous presence in the Asia Pacific in 2018, and the then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson's stated interest in further reinforcing Britain's naval return to "East of Suez". (4) The UK's reengagement with Southeast Asia comes at a time when increasing geopolitical and economic competition has encouraged debate in both Britain and Southeast Asia about what the UK may (or may not) bring to the region. (5)

The purpose of this article is to examine current UK strategizing and policies towards Southeast Asia. Notably, the UK is not well known in the contemporary period for "doing" grand strategy or even designing and implementing effective regional strategies. (6) Is Southeast Asia an exception to the rule? How does London approach this important subregion of the Asia Pacific in the current geopolitical and economic context? Drawing on primary sources and interviews in London and Southeast Asia, this article seeks to enhance the otherwise quite limited literature on the UK's recent re-engagement with Southeast Asia. (7) The article assesses the nature, coherence and effectiveness of Britain's re-engagement with Southeast Asia, not least in the wake of recent efforts to strengthen cross-government approaches.

The article is divided into four sections. To develop the context and framework, the first section sets out some general insights from debates concerning British grand strategy and regional strategizing. Considering the UK government's strategic objectives and related conceptual linkages, the second section outlines Britain's increasing interactions with Southeast Asia under successive Conservative-led governments to illustrate the nature of its re-engagement with the region. In the third section, we account for the drivers of Britain's increasing defence and economic engagement with Southeast Asia over the past decade. Finally, we identify some limitations of British strategizing towards the region.

The article makes three main arguments. First, British reengagement vis-a-vis Southeast Asia has been multi-dimensional in character, involving multiple government departments. It has especially, but not exclusively, focused on defence and economic diplomacy, alongside recent efforts to strengthen the relationship with ASEAN with a view to securing a separate dialogue partnership with the grouping post-Brexit. Second, the notable increase in the Royal Navy's presence not only reflects the ambitions of Conservative Party policymakers keen to promote "Global Britain", but also builds on security and alliance considerations as well as institutional support that precede the Brexit referendum. Third, the effectiveness of the UK's re-engagement with Southeast Asia to some extent remains in question in part because some of the government's policies have been met with ambivalence or resistance, and because policymakers continue to struggle clarifying and clearly communicating how UK strategizing and policies towards Southeast Asia are aligned with Britain's wider regional approach.

Context and Framework

Why is the question of whether the UK has pursued a coherent and effective approach towards Southeast Asia of intellectual interest and practical import? We suggest that it is because of the considerable debate over the UK's ability to adopt a grand strategy (or even only an effective regional strategy) in the context of contemporary security challenges, core national objectives and resource constraints. Former practitioners argue that even by 2015, UK policymakers were not necessarily conceptualizing strategy appropriately, leading them to conflate aspirations and policy with strategy. Also, Whitehall was struggling to respond to cross-departmental challenges and approaches in the absence of a unifying methodology to think strategically. (8) Similar criticisms among analysts claim that Britain is ill-equipped to conceptualize and execute grand strategy. Patrick Porter argues that the UK has been inclined to follow the guiding ideas of US national security strategies rather than develop its own. (9) Jamie Gaskarth suggests that UK policymakers adopt only a piecemeal and technocratic approach to defence and security, while failing to spell out policy objectives for contemporary Britain. (10) Significantly, both Porter and Gaskarth see British identity as unsettled, with the latter chiding the government for failing to conduct an adequate assessment of Britain's place in the world as understood by the domestic political community. (11) However, other scholars disagree. They maintain that Britain might be seen as pursuing a grand strategy aimed at upholding the "liberal international order" through its alliance with the United States and its commitment to democracy, free markets, multilateral institutions and international law. (12) Yet others believe that a coherent and effective UK approach to policymaking has been possible even in the absence of a strategy deserving of that name. (13)

Much of this debate has occurred with reference to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of 2010 and 2015, and the National Security Capabilities Review (NSCR) of 2018, which is the most recent strategy document to again set out the UK's national security context and its security approach but does so against the backdrop of the adoption of the vision and values of "Global Britain" as an important marker of identity and ambition. (14) These important government documents have themselves drawn criticism. While the 2010 SDSR was heavily faulted as an exercise in cost-cutting, (15) the 2015 SDSR was criticized for its failure to identify strategic risks and take account of an international environment increasingly characterized by Great Power competition. (16) Even the NSCR raised questions, including regarding the main security challenges facing the UK and the need to strengthen the capabilities of the country's armed forces. (17) Regardless, these documents testify to Britain's efforts that have been invested to develop joined-up and comprehensive approaches to security and prosperity. These have given rise to the Fusion Doctrine which is designed to create cross-government responses to security challenges and which focuses on strategy-building in the context of a range of objectives as well as situational assessments. (18) The doctrine identifies three main security referents: the security of the UK population; the UK's influence around the world; and the country's prosperity. (19) Notably, existing assessments of the reforms introduced to improve UK strategizing and national security making are broadly positive. Indeed, it is argued that the National Security Council (NSC) and the formulation of the SDSR have enabled the design of a more coherent national security strategy through "networks of regularised, embedded, and often strategically decisive" interdepartmental coordination meetings. (20) Furthermore, Britain has subsumed the "GREAT Britain" brand and soft power strategies under its national security framework, yielding a "multimodal diplomatic toolset" to pursue state and private sector interests simultaneously while British security is predicated on a strong economy. (21)

Even as assessments of whether Britain can "do" strategy in general are becoming more positive, concerns about Britain's approaches to various regions of the world persist. For Porter, the abandonment of geography in UK strategy-building, combined with "the inception of more unbounded ideas, such as 'values', have de-territorialised Britain's understanding of its interests to the point of incoherence". (22) Also, the limited literature on the UK's actual approaches towards specific regions suggests that Britain has struggled to develop coherent and/or effective regional strategies. For instance, the British government's response to the Arab Spring in the early 2010s shows how the UK's then "networked foreign policy" was implemented on a bilateral basis that lacked coordination even as security priorities, more than economic or social pressures, shaped British policy towards the Middle East. (23) With regard to Britain's approach towards Africa, the "Global Britain" discourse embraced by then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resonated in problematic ways with the imperial and conservative discourse of civilizing and modernizing Africa, while the UK's trade and investment plans were not clearly articulated. (24) Similarly, Britain's regional approach towards Latin America has been characterized by its failure to manage local political sensitivities and to allocate resources necessary to deliver on rhetoric and ideas. (25)

Appreciating that the meaning of strategy has shifted substantially over time, (26) this article will associate with a strategic approach or strategizing more than simply the enunciation of particular slogans, aspirations or specific policies. In relation to a region, such an approach would involve linking core national objectives to a framework that...

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