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Britain goes all out to charm Asia

Publication Date : 30-04-2012


British Foreign Secretary William Hague was in town last week to deliver the second International Institute for Strategic Studies-Fullerton Lecture. His visit comes on the heels of British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent swing through Asia, taking in Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Japan.

Last November, British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond attended the Five Power Defence Arrangements meeting in Singapore.

Later this year, Britain is dispatching to Asia its ultimate 'soft power' asset, Prince William and his wife Catherine.

This concerted flurry of British diplomatic activity suggests that - for all the media focus on United States President Barack Obama's 'pivot' to Asia and China's assertiveness in the Spratlys - other major powers such as Britain are also ratcheting up their regional presence.

Britain is also now seeking to accede to Asean's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, just as the US and China have done.

In his address, Hague referred to a 'blitz' of senior British ministers traipsing through the region seeking to 'turbo-charge' ties. But what cards can Britain seriously bring to the table?

For one thing, Hague's speech rejected the notion of Britain in decline. Instead, his key message was that London is looking East as never before, and that for Asian states looking to Britain, they would find a willing and active partner.

Yet, rhetoric has to come up against hard reality: Britain today is long past its dominance at its imperial height. The Royal Navy does not even have an operational aircraft carrier now and it lacks the hard assets that the Pentagon is planning to redeploy to Asia.

While the Royal Navy still packs a lethal punch - it recently sent its latest Type 45 Daring-class destroyer and Trafalgar-class nuclear submarine to the Falklands on the 30th anniversary of Argentina's invasion of the islands - these assets are few and far between.

Cameron's visit to Tokyo earlier this month is more suggestive of how Britain can still engage in regional security in spite of its much-diminished status. Defence blogs were abuzz with speculation that the talks would involve Britain more regularly deploying a hunter-killer submarine to the region.

More significantly, the visit came shortly after Tokyo relaxed its decades- long ban on weapons development with countries other than the US, with Cameron renewing London's commitment to promoting future cooperation between British and Japanese defence industries. A memorandum of understanding would be signed at the next meeting.

In effect, Tokyo has installed Britain as only the second nation, after the United States, with which it has formal defence cooperation.

British arms makers retain leading niche capabilities in howitzer and mine- clearing technologies; while aerospace companies such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce are world-class.

It is this emphasis on 'niche capabilities' that can help compensate for Britain's lack of physical military assets, a point that Hague referred to also.

Pointedly, he proposed a broad definition of security, far more encompassing than traditional military defence or rigid ideological blocs of the Cold War. As envisaged, Britain is looking for 'flexible partnerships', drawing on its substantial expertise in, for instance, cybersecurity.

At a time of drastic defence cuts, it is significant that London has decided to invest 650 million pounds in cybersecurity capabilities. Cybersecurity risks are now among the British government's 'Tier 1' threats.

Given Tokyo's recent experience of cyberattacks on its defence companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, there would be scope for expanded Anglo-Japanese cooperation in this aspect.

Similarly, Singapore's new National Cyber Security Centre set up last year would benefit from renewed engagement with British cybersecurity expertise. On other issues, like climate change, Britain has provided support for the Asean Working Group on Climate Change.

Hague's speech was titled 'Britain in Asia', but it could more accurately be called 'Britain re-engages Asia', given his vigorous and proactive description of British diplomatic forays.

London will reopen its embassy in Laos, shuttered since 1985; and Hague himself has visited Australia to re-energise ties since taking office, after a 16-year absence of visits by British foreign secretaries. After its retreat from 'East of Suez' in the 1960s, Britain has long been preoccupied with European affairs, the US alliance, and hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

As economic problems in the European Union have given renewed impetus to British efforts to look East, London's recent initiatives in Asia suggest that America is not alone in its refocus on Asia.


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