UK pivot could be good for Thais

UK pivot could be good for Thais

This weekend the UK’s HMS Richmond has entered Thai territorial waters to conduct a joint military exercise with the Royal Thai Navy. It represents the first visit of a Royal Navy ship to Thailand since HMS Daring visited in 2014. Notably, it is the first engagement of the UK Carrier Strike Group with an Asean nation as part of the UK government’s commitment to becoming “a persistent, credible and reliable presence in the Indo-Pacific”.

To that end, the long overdue publication of a UK Indo-Pacific strategy could strengthen the UK government’s definition of Global Britain, a term much touted much by officials in attempts to sketch out a vision of a post-Brexit landscape that aligns with its sea-faring empirical history and present need for productive and profitable collaboration in new markets.

The visit is further evidence of the UK’s so-called “Indo-Pacific Tilt” in which the British government aims to deepen engagement with and establish “a greater and more persistent presence in the region than any other European country”. At least 1.7 million British citizens live across the region, with 50,000 residing in Thailand alone.

As the United Kingdom wakes from the distraction of its own Covid-19 nightmare, it seems likely that attention will return to life after Brexit and the need for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to prove what it promised — that future prosperity does not rely on the cover afforded by the umbrella of the European Union.

In 2019, which now seems far longer ago than almost any two-year span in living memory, the US Department of Defense released its Indo-Pacific Strategy on May 31 as Washington sent acting secretary of defense, Patrick M Shanahan, to join the Shangri-La Dialogue — a high-profile defence forum held annually by the Singaporean government.

A few days before the Shangri-La Dialogue, France’s Ministry of the Armed Forces had also released its own “France and security in the Indo-Pacific.” The US, France, and the United Kingdom sent high level defence delegations to attend the Shangri-La dialogue; however, there was a clear absence of a similar British policy paper on the region, leaving many observers to wonder whether Britain’s commitment towards strengthening political and economic ties in this part of town was serious.

Back then, former prime minister David Cameron had seemed to be keener on forging bonds with China, and the following leader, Theresa May, also appeared to lean towards involvement in its Belt and Road Initiative and wooing more investment from China.

British-Sino relations back then, seemingly in opposition to UK defence engagements and freedom of navigation patrols, created a disjointed British policy which in the aftermath of the global pandemic is no longer a productive way to engage with what is likely to be an increasingly powerful player on the global stage — the bloc formed by the members of the Asia-Pacific Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade treaty.

The Asia-Pacific is now the world’s leading region of economic growth, offering big opportunities for trade and expansion, and the CPTPP is a free trade agreement between Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam originally signed by the 11 countries on March 8, 2018 in Santiago, Chile.

The pact replaced the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a similar trade deal that included the US until the Trump administration decided to withdraw.

After Brexit, the UK has made a quick move to join various free trade agreements both at the bilateral and multilateral level. The UK’s application for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership has been accepted and negotiations have started.

At the regional level, London has expressed a strong desire to become a dialogue partner of Asean. There is no consensus, yet it is said some members of the regional bloc fully support the UK’s admission now as a special case. Asean has placed a moratorium on the number of dialogue partners for the past two decades.

The CPTPP is also the trade agreement to which Thailand is considering applying. The government has been reluctant because of pressure from NGOs and civic groups on sensitive issues including the protection of new varieties of plants and biodiversity, intellectual property protection and state procurement requirements.

So as the Thai and British navies go about their symbolic business of military drills and ceremonies of mutual admiration, there lies in the background the real context of two countries at a crossroads whose futures could well be reliant on engagement with one of the world’s behemoth trade groupings.

For the UK, that can no longer mean the EU. And for Thailand, the Asean bloc alone may not be enough to enable the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration to pull the beleaguered economy out of the mire.