Today the idea of the “developed West and developing rest” is all but irrelevant. The world has changed and so must the UK if we are to prevent our role and influence in international affairs from declining. Key to this will be making the most of opportunities presented by a new international paradigm in which economic power and influence is moving east and south. We are doing this by shifting our diplomatic weight to reflect these changes and by building our relationships with emerging powers. These relationships will be increasingly vital for forging agreements on the international stage and for boosting trade and investment that support the UK.
South-east Asia epitomises the rationale for this approach. The ASEAN countries are already more populous than the EU and the Arab world, have a larger economy than India and absorb more UK exports than China. They hold substantial geopolitical significance, with influence on neighbouring major powers. They should be, and are, key partners for the UK.
The region deserves serious attention from global partners. The UK is fortunate to draw on a foundation of existing relationships, and we already enjoy multibillion pound trade and investment links with ASEAN. Our largest businesses in finance, energy, life sciences and food and drink are establishing a regional foothold and more of our retailers are becoming household names, especially in Thailand. Furthermore, every year over 30,000 ASEAN students study in the UK, often returning to positions of influence. They form part of the rich people-to-people links between our countries.
We build on these links all the time. On his visit to Indonesia last month the business secretary, Vince Cable, launched the new UK-ASEAN Business Council to strengthen commercial engagement with the region. The government’s public-private partnership body, Infrastructure UK, is already in the Philippines sharing expertise, and we aim to do this more widely across the region. Moreover, we continue to support development, democratic freedoms and transparency. But there is more we can do. Our commercial relationships in the region are strongest with our Commonwealth partners, Singapore and Malaysia. But while strengthening these we should be looking for opportunities elsewhere as well. We also need to continue to work alongside EU partners to secure free trade agreements with ASEAN countries to open markets and boost trade. Furthermore, we need to do more to promote two-way investment. International institutions rate the UK as the easiest place to do business in Europe, with the strongest business environment on the continent and the lowest barriers to entrepreneurship in the world.
But our relationship is about more than trade and investment. We have interests in maintaining security in a region that straddles some of the world’s most important shipping routes and in tackling common threats, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cybercrime and climate change. There are a number of separatist or other conflicts within ASEAN, and tensions remain in the South China Sea. The UK has a wealth of experience and we are keen to share our knowledge to promote stability. We form part of a small group of countries formally supporting efforts by the Filipino Government and rebel groups to end their conflict.
The voices of ASEAN leaders will be increasingly influential, both regionally and globally, in the future. Indonesia’s impressive democratisation and Malaysia’s strong stand against violent extremism can serve as examples for the entire international community.
We also want to work with ASEAN members on climate change. They are among the heaviest emitters of greenhouse gases, but could also be among those most seriously affected by the consequences of changing temperatures. Any durable solutions will therefore require commitment and close coordination with ASEAN.
Thus, our approach will be to build up our relations with ASEAN, to share expertise and knowledge, to promote increased and freer trade and to work together in a wide range of areas, from security to climate change.
We will continue to look east, toward the tremendous wealth of opportunity to be found in South-east Asia.