Is Brexit bringing Britain back to Southeast Asia?


UK-ASEAN Business Council (UK-ABC) Lunch Meeting.

This whole Brexit thing is all about the European Union and how resilient the union is when it faces a challenge coming from the withdrawal of one of its members. Anything else, including this topic, is just a mere side-dish in a feast of a full course meal. The real debate and discussion should lie on the fact that Britain has lost its importance and significance in world politics.

Britain’s Post-Brexit plan for a “Global Britain” foreign policy is just an effort to escape from the reality that even until eight weeks before the actual withdrawal (or the scheduled withdrawal on March 29, 2019), the UK has not yet secured a deal on how to leave the European Union. Pretty bad, is it?

Britain, according to Haacke and Breen (2018), has several choices if it wants to re-engage Southeast Asia. Among those choices are trade, military, or establishment of formal relations as a dialogue partner.

I would say that the chance is very thin. Even Jeremy Hunt’s (UK current Foreign Secretary) visit to Malaysia and Singapore on early January 2019 did not make a hit on regional news.

As Ying Staton puts it, many Southeast Asians see Brexit as UK’s “remarkable act of self-harm.”

First off, Southeast Asia is, as much as I hate to say this, a battleground for great powers in the greater Indo-Pacific region such as China and the United States. In the next five or ten years, Southeast Asian countries should gear up for possible additional player in the region, India — and Southeast Asian countries will have to welcome India with open arms. As important as this region could be, even a country like Australia should work really hard to maintain its significance and relevance in the region, because Southeast Asian countries will be busy taking care of China, the US, and India.

Secondly, ASEAN will be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2030. It was, is, and will still be the “hub in the movement of international goods.” If the UK really wants to go back to Southeast Asia, Britain has to offer something that ASEAN’s immediate neighbors and other great powers, like China and the US, do not or cannot offer.

Thirdly, in 2015, ASEAN’s export to the UK accounted for only 1.5% out of ASEAN’s total export globally. With only 1.5% share in ASEAN’s total export globally, UK’s withdrawal from the EU (Brexit) will not affect ASEAN-EU FTA that much. Comparatively speaking, a market as appealing as the United States — that, by the way, pulled out of TPP negotiation — did not hinder the remaining TPP 11 members to proceed the negotiation and stroke the deal; let alone a country that serves as the destination of only 1.5% of ASEAN’s total export globally.

If the UK really wants to make a comeback to Southeast Asia, the UK has to rethink its strategy. Southeast Asia is a very — if not the most — vibrant region today and in the years to come. The UK cannot just treat Southeast Asia as a Plan B because it withdrew from the EU and needs to find remedy for the losses it got from making bad decisions in the past. The UK should treat Southeast Asia as if the region is special, because as a matter of fact, the region, is, special. That being said, if Britain wants to join the game in Southeast Asia, I will just reiterate what I have just said, Britain has to offer something that ASEAN’s immediate neighbors and other great powers, like China and the US, do not or cannot offer.

International Relations enthusiast