July 18, 2023
JAKARTA – Following the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, London has redefined parts of its foreign policy, including by pursuing an “Indo-Pacific tilt”. This increased interest in engagement wtih the region comes at a time of geopolitical tensions, a theme prominent at the 56th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and related gatherings. The Jakarta Post’s Yvette Tanamal sat down with British Foreign Minister James Cleverly to discuss the UK’s approach to its Indo-Pacific strategy on Friday, following the UK-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC). The following are excerpts from the interview:
Question: Dozens of meetings were held during the week. Could you share the results of the meetings? What was discussed at the UK-ASEAN PMC?
Answer: I’ve taken the opportunity to speak formally and informally with the regional representatives that are here. The kind of things that we are discussing are very much on economic cooperation, very much on discussing the implementation of the UK’s increased focus on the Indo-Pacific, explaining how we’re going to make that, or we have made that, a permanent feature of the UK’s foreign policy.
That includes what it means about our focus on things like energy transition and climate change. We’ve got a very ambitious program with Vietnam, for example, for the Just Energy Transition. We’ve got a very good working relationship with Indonesia. I am also looking for further opportunities to work bilaterally with Indonesia and other countries that are represented here.
And we’re very proud of the UK’s higher education sector. This year there’ll be over 200 Chevening scholars from the ASEAN countries.
I think that education cooperation, science and technology cooperation, environmental protection, maritime coordination and ASEAN’s central role in harnessing prosperity and maintaining peace in the region is something the UK is very keen to support.
That the Indo-Pacific has become a permanent feature of UK’s foreign policy is something you have previously referred to as the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. How does this strategy influence regional opportunities and challenges, and how does it differ from the UK’s historical approach of, for example, the Commonwealth?
When I was appointed as foreign secretary in September last year, the first set piece speech I gave was in Singapore, and it was about our Indo-Pacific policy.
I did that consciously because I wanted to reinforce the point that this was a permanent feature of the UK’s foreign policy, and that in the UK, we recognize that the center of gravity for world affairs is shifting.
We recognize that the UK’s prosperity and success are always dependent on our ability to work closely and collaboratively with other countries around the world. The point I made is our traditional friendships, particularly in the European Atlantic region, or European neighbors and friends in North America – we’re not going to lose those friendships. But what we have to do is to enhance our relationship in the Indo-Pacific.
Some of the well-established Commonwealth friends [in the Indo-Pacific region] are Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and India. But there are other friendships, the non-Commonwealth friendships with Indonesia, for example, [and] Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
These are relatively new friendships, but we are investing in these new friendships because of the UK’s focus on the region, which I’d like to think is good for the region. We have expertise, we have experience that we have to share, but it’s also good for the UK.
I think that makes a good relationship because it’s useful for both directions.
As part of AUKUS, and as a nuclear weapon-owning state, how does the UK plan to assuage the concerns of Indonesia and the wider region?
Firstly, on AUKUS, it’s really important to remember that it is about the propulsion system, so it’s a nuclear-powered submarine program, not a nuclear-armed submarine program. I think that in conversations, there’s been some confusion about this.
It’s absolutely about the propulsion system. It’s nuclear energy that’s used to run the submarines. So the UK, of course, like any other countries in the world, would like nothing more than a nuclear weapon-free world. Now that’s not something that the world will see immediately, of course.
The UK has negotiated similar agreements in other parts of the world, and is very open to this. It’s something I discussed directly with Indonesia’s foreign minister [on Thursday].
Of course, we are very happy to work with other nations in pursuit of that agenda. Of course, these things would happen in a coordinated manner, and we do seek to coordinate with other nuclear weapon states to pursue that.
We recognize how strongly Indonesia and other countries in the region feel about this, and the UK will always be a very highly responsible nuclear weapon state.
I think engagement, dialogue and conversations are the best ways to reduce tensions and avoid conflict.
I came here directly from the NATO summit, a very important multilateral event. I’m here for ASEAN, another very important multilateral event, and on Monday, I’m going to the United Nations Security Council.
All of these events are about conversations, sometimes very difficult conversations. But [these] conversations and dialogue are to try to deescalate, whether the tensions we see with Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine or in avoiding future conflicts and tensions.
I’m making sure that we maintain the habit of talking through the difficult issues rather than what has happened historically, which is international tension culminating in violence and conflict.
The UK view is that does not have to be the inevitable way difficulties are resolved.
We always seek to resolve things through negotiations. For example, with China at the South China Sea, that has been adjudicated through the UNCLOS, and [we] are very keen to ensure that everybody abides by that adjudication.
ASEAN really wants nuclear weapons states, including the UK, to accede to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. How far is the UK now in acceding to the treaty?
I can’t put a timeline on that, but this is something we are looking for in coordination with others. We recognize how important it is, so we are working on it.
The UK recently signed a memorandum of understanding with BSSN, Indonesia’s cyber authority. With the general election in Indonesia around the corner, how important is the work you are doing with Indonesia for its democracy?
This is a very important issue. And it’s an issue that really knows no borders. So when it comes to digital security, cyber security, the implications of artificial intelligence [AI], there are no such things as regions.
We are all having to deal with this. We’ve got real strength, very good capabilities with regard to cybersecurity, and we recognize that it is in the UK’s national interest that we help our friends around the world become more resilient in cybersecurity.
AI has exactly the same opportunity to amplify the positives, but there’s also some risks that need to be managed.