In November, the heads of government of the 10 countries that make up the Association of South East Asia Nations (Asean) gathered in the Philippines for Asean’s 50th anniversary summit. The journey for Asean out of wars, colonialism and poverty has been a critical one for Asia and the world. Now, as we leave the European Union, we must focus on how to deepen our relationship with Asean.
Their host’s choice of venue, Clark International Airport, which is north of Manila, is symbolic both of the changes in southeast Asia and the opportunities ahead. When I was general manager of Cathay Pacific in the Philippines over 30 years ago, Clark was a US Air Force Base winding down from its role in the Vietnam War. Recently I went back to host a Smart City event, and visited a British aviation company that trains both Filipino and Vietnamese pilots on Airbus A320 simulators.
The airport meanwhile now welcomes increasing numbers of foreign airlines and tourists and Clark is considering expansion plans that may draw on underlying British investment, while the UK government has doubled UK Export Finance (UKEF) cover available to £4.5bn.
These are just two examples of the widening UK contribution in southeast Asia. Today there are five British universities operating in Malaysia, a new GlaxoSmithKline factory in Indonesia and tens of thousands covered by Prudential insurance products. Meanwhile Jardine Matheson is investing in toll roads, National Air Traffic Services is working with the Thai authorities on the best use of their air space and both BT and BAE are helping to improve cyber protection. All sorts of UK technology businesses are thriving, especially in Singapore. Overall Asean is the third largest non-EU export market to the UK.
We build on a long history of involvement with Asean member states, and especially the three members of the Commonwealth. And because southeast Asia thrives on relationships, so David Cameron’s creation of a team of Trade Envoys, from all parties and both Houses of Parliament has been particularly relevant in this region.
Add to that the new Department of International Trade’s commitment to Asean—more ministerial visits, trade missions (including the largest ever to the Asian Development Bank recently), UKEF cover—and more investment both ways. But as we increase our bilateral involvement in sectors as diverse as infrastructure, energy, education, maritime and defence, so we now need to think strategically about our future relationship with Asean. The 625m people who live in the region would benefit from greater mutual recognition of agreed professional standards and qualifications, not least in professional services—and this is an area where the UK has a lot to offer.
The UK’s strength in international education will also help Asean look outwards and increase its footprint in the world, using London as her global showcase. Our openness to foreign investment has already seen a southeast Asian business transform Whyte & Mackay whisky, create the world’s first digital autopsies in the UK and successfully complete phase one of the largest single urban regeneration project in Europe—the former Battersea Power Station.
And at a time when autocracy is on the increase, there is a role for the UK to stand up for values that help the long term success of Asean countries. An independent judiciary, freedom of expression and democratic elections—all play a part in breaking down trade barriers too.
When the UK leaves the EU we will no longer be a formal “Dialogue Partner” with Asean. There are other structures of relationships that could be pursued— Development or Sectoral Partnerships, currently divided into the categories of political-security, economic and sociology-cultural.
When Singapore is the Asean chair in 2018, we should both research, engage and then decide what future relationship will be most productive for our future relationship with Asean. Leading think tanks should be involved, but I’m also keen for business to have its input, and the UK Asean Business Council (ABC) will shortly start work on their research, reaching out to British and southeast Asian businesses.
As the UK brings back in house our global trading relationships, there are many friends to engage with and opportunities to pursue. The Asean region, now already the world’s fifth-largest trading entity, is going to be an increasingly important area of global growth. We must and we will make sure that we continue to grow our relationships, business and investment together—and 2018 is the year to take this forward strategically.
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