Re-Examining the UK’s Priorities in the Asia-Pacific Region

A UK ASEAN Business Council lunch in London. Courtesy of Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr

The UK’s upcoming Integrated Review is a good opportunity to assess the country’s commitment to and posture in the Asia-Pacific, which is rapidly becoming the world’s most pivotal region.

While the UK is giving increased priority to the Asia-Pacific region, developing a more active and strategic engagement across the area will not be without challenges. The Asia-Pacific region has its own historical and political complexities. The region is also caught between an increasingly assertive China that views the region as its sphere of influence and a US administration that seeks to maintain supremacy in the area, but views regional allies in transactional terms and has withdrawn from multilateral initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The UK’s aim of finding a role in the region is complicated by Brexit, as it loses its Dialogue Partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but cannot automatically get its own Dialogue Partnership, since a moratorium on new members is still in force. Furthermore, Britain’s access to numerous free trade agreements (FTA) remains under negotiation. In addition, the promotion of values like human rights, democracy, and respect for a rules-based international order was a product of the UK­­–US alliance and membership in the EU, and the UK may find it difficult to promote these alone. 

A Post-Brexit Asia-Pacific Strategy 

Yet, while the UK faces a challenging operating environment in the Asia-Pacific, the region also holds significant opportunities. The following seven key pillars should form the UK’s Asia-Pacific approach. 

  1. A pragmatic but principled relationship with China. China is of primary importance to the UK, but London currently lacks a coherent strategy. The UK should explore potential cooperation with China on mitigating global challenges in third countries. However, a full national assessment of China is required and must include both an honest appreciation of trade and investment opportunities in light of a potential FTA, as well as a realistic examination of the challenges to the UK, Asia-Pacific, and the international liberal order. Highlighting the difficulties the UK faces in managing its relationship with China, London has already weathered a political storm with Beijing following the 2018 freedom of navigation exercise by HMS Albion in the South China Sea. More difficult will be how the UK balances a pragmatic approach to China while maintaining its close relationship with the US, with the UK’s decisions to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and to allow Huawei access into the UK’s 5G network already causing tensions. 
  2. The Asia-Pacific cannot be framed through a ‘China-lens’. While the UK must develop a clear strategy on China, Asia-Pacific policy should not be Sino-centric. The supply-chain vulnerabilities that have been exposed during the COVID-19 crisis underline the imperative to explore opportunities for economic diversification in the region. For this, continued efforts to work with ASEAN countries on facilitating greater ease-of-business, such as the ASEAN Regional Digital Trade Transformation project, are required. At the same time, diplomatic engagement must clearly articulate what the UK offers to the Asia-Pacific, such as technical expertise in various sectors, and why the region is of interest to the UK beyond trade opportunities and balancing against China. Currently, there is still some question over the extent to which the UK can make a meaningful contribution to Southeast Asia in light of other potential priorities post-Brexit.
  3. Strategy and prioritisation in the Indo-Pacific. The 2018 National Security Capabilities Review indicated a strategic shift of perspective in the UK as it employed both the terms Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific, and recognised that together the Indian and Pacific Oceans constitute one of ‘three primary centres of economic gravity’ in the world. It also suggested that the UK might align itself strategically with the regional approaches of close partners like the US, Japan, and Australia. Although there is a debate on its geographic boundaries, the Indo-Pacific at its widest conceptualisation includes all littoral states of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, while the Asia-Pacific commonly refers to Northeast and Southeast Asia and Oceania, as well as the Americas in its broadest iteration. While, the move to take account of the Indo-Pacific as a region has been important, notably for security and defence, London has yet to elaborate how it will approach this vast area. To be most effective, the UK should consider developing distinct, but interlinked, sub-regional strategies around the Indian Ocean Region, East Asia and ASEAN, as well as Australasia and the South Pacific. Given the UK’s likely available resources, efforts should be focused on the Indian Ocean (including the eastern coast of Africa) and Southeast Asia in areas where it enjoys the advantages of strong ties based on historical relations. Within ASEAN, the UK should continue to support the ASEAN Secretariat and its Centres. Commonwealth members Singapore and Malaysia remain key partners, in addition to growing economic and like-minded maritime security actors Vietnam and Indonesia. Less developed Mekong countries, like Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, will require engagement if ASEAN as a whole is to prosper. The UK’s efforts on the role of women, climate change, and de-mining in Laos and Cambodiasignals a principled approach that should continue. But the UK must also maximise its own strengths, networks and activities in Southeast Asia. The recently established UK Mission to ASEAN and regional British Defence Staff hub in Singapore are excellent examples of how this can be done. 
  4. The Maritime Commonwealth as the UK’s Indo-Pacific. By developing sub-regional strategies and building on the existing Commonwealth network, the UK has a de facto Indo-Pacific approach without necessitating a possibly resource-intensive re-orientation in policy. 26 of the Commonwealth network states are littoral states of the Indo-Pacific, with extensive maritime Exclusive Economic Zones. Such an approach could include working with Commonwealth countries in the sub-regions to ensure more widespread implementation of initiatives like the Commonwealth Blue Charter and Commonwealth Marine Economic ProgrammeCommonwealth Connectivity Agenda, and Commonwealth Cyber Declaration. These areas of non-traditional security can be combined with innovative technological and scientific approaches that take advantage of key British expertise and industries, while creating wider cooperative frameworks. 
  5. Security engagement versus military deployment. While the planned 2021 deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group to the Asia-Pacific will play an important part in regional defence diplomacy, many non-traditional maritime security challenges can be met by contributing British expertise in maritime law enforcement capacity building, training in maritime law, and supporting local efforts against other challenges like transnational organised crime, cyber security, and climate change. The recent dialogue partnership between the UK’s National Crime Agency and ASEANAPOL is a good example of this. Should the Integrated Review signal that forward deployment for a permanent naval presence is viable within wider UK defence resource allocation priorities, a multi-role vessel deployed on a rotational basis to the British naval support facility in Bahrain would be suited to providing, for example, training and maritime security capacity building and would be an effective signal to countries in the region of the UK’s long-term support. This could complement any joint exercises with UK defence assets visiting the region or strengthening existing activities around the Five Power Defence Agreements or British Armed Forces in Brunei.
  6. Partnerships for impact maximisation. Prioritisation between sub-regions, chiefly focusing on the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, will require close coordination and cooperation between the UK and its partners around the world to maximise impact and avoid duplicating efforts. The US will remain a cornerstone of the UK’s Asia-Pacific policy, particularly in defence matters. But this does not prevent the UK from deepening its partnerships with countries that already have a long-standing presence in sub-regions – be it France, Australia and New Zealand, India, or Japan. The EU should remain a valuable partner for the UK, notably regarding its EU–Asia Connectivity Plan and Security Partnerships in Asia. At the same time, the UK should cultivate ties with the rising middle powers of Vietnam and Indonesia, which are anchors for support for a regional rules-based order. Working closely with a range of partners reinforces the narrative that the UK will not seek to impose strategies on sub-regions, but rather work within existing frameworks. 
  7. Enhance strategic communications. The 2018 National Security Capability Review recognised the need for national security strategic communications (stratcom). The UK’s contribution to the region has been wide-ranging, as outlined in a 2018 speech by former High Commissioner to Singapore, Scott Wightman. However, without the strategic communication of a clear UK strategy for the sub-regions in the Asia-Pacific, and a larger narrative that can bring these together through the Maritime Commonwealth across the Indo-Pacific, the value added of noteworthy steps like the diplomatic mission to ASEAN or defence and security agreements with Japan are reduced to individual policy achievements. Thus, according to recent polling in ASEAN, those interviewed remain undecided over whether the UK should be granted Dialogue Partnership status independent of the EU. Effective stratcom should offer clarity over the UK’s strategy within and between the various sub-regions and allow for a clearer appreciation of what the UK brings to the table. One example of an effective approach is the Indo-Pacific Strategy of France, which clearly explains why and how France and the region are interlinked. ASEAN is a stratcom priority and efforts must be increased to build public and political support in its member states for an enhanced UK engagement in the region. 


The UK has a great deal to offer the Asia-Pacific and wider Maritime Commonwealth if it can effectively engage these regions. Britain can do all of this, assuming London is willing to allocate the necessary resources to the creation of what former Secretary of State for Defence Penny Mordaunt referred to at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue: a UK that is and always will be a trusted partner.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

This article was changed on 18 March 2020 to reflect the correct number of Commonwealth network states which are littoral state of the Indo-Pacific.


Veerle Nouwens

External Author | Former RUSI Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific

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