Global Britain's Indo-Pacific tests

Global Britain's Indo-Pacific tests

It is worth harking back to what Prime Minister Boris Johnson said when he was a foreign secretary: "We should have absolutely no shame or embarrassment in championing our ideals around the world and in this era of dithering and dubitation, this should be the message of Global Britain to the world: that we stick up for free markets as vigorously as we stick up for democracy and human rights." While he may have stumbled on his own rules during the Covid restrictions in the UK, those words he spoke as foreign secretary could not be more relevant to the direction of Global Britain today.

Amanda Milling MP, Minister for Asia at the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), reflected this commitment on her Twitter account that "the UK holds the principles of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression close to our hearts" after meeting with local human rights defenders during her visit to Thailand on Jan 11–14, 2022.

This is a clever move by the foreign policy circles in the FCDO who are responsible for the Southeast Asian region. However, it is not a well-thought through approach and shows a lack of commitment to the principles of democracy and human rights they claim to hold dear. This diplomatic game stretches back to a few months ago when Foreign Secretary Liz Truss touched solely on issues related to trade and investment on her visit to Thailand.

On the one hand, the FCDO had a Minister for Asia, who does not hold as much authority as Foreign Secretary, touching lightly and broadly upon how the UK values democracy and human rights while, on the other hand, the Foreign Secretary was strictly sticking to the usual diplomatic protocol with the aim of boosting financial benefits for Britain.

Former foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, hardly laid a strong foundation for Britain's human rights foreign policy when a recording of his internal memo briefing indicated that human rights issues would not always take precedence over trade deals was leaked in March last year.

Of course, Secretary Truss had a chance to lay out her own vision for addressing these Indo-Pacific challenges during her recent official visit to Thailand in latest November, but she chose not to. She could have defined what "Global Britain" means to the people of Southeast Asia. She could have spelled out why Britain is in a better position outside the EU in terms of helping the democratisation process and ensuring human rights are protected in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in Southeast Asia.

While there is universal agreement that the ongoing atrocities committed by the Myanmar junta upon its own citizens are crimes against humanity, responses vary. Economic sanctions imposed by the UK against the regime in Myanmar are nothing more than a superficial diplomatic response aimed at showing the international community that Britain is doing something. Even proclaiming to have implemented measures to discourage or prevent British businesses from feeding the Tatmadaw still falls short of what is expected of Global Britain.

I had a chance to ask the then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab during an online Q&A session on Facebook Live last year about what was needed to address the crisis in Myanmar. His uninspiring response was typically diplomatic, stating that Britain needed to try to talk to this and that party, and that the Asian way of diplomacy is different from the Western model.

In all likelihood, Secretary Raab would have been following FCDO directives to stick to respecting the "Asean way". Meanwhile, democracy loving people in Myanmar cannot wait for some of the despots currently in power in their Southeast Asian neighbours to step in, flex their military muscle, and put an end to the massacres being committed by the Myanmar junta.

It is not enough for Global Britain to be concerned only with making trade deals to replace the ones lost as a result of Brexit. It should prioritise and implement "democracy promotion". This, however, would require British political leaders who are principled and brave enough to put troops on the ground in order to help those who have been fighting against authoritarian regimes in their homelands.

Above all else, Britain must be aware of whatever actions it takes in the Indo-Pacific arena, there will always be those from other countries who would bring up its colonial past to deter and discredit its attempts to help those being oppressed by their own states.

My advice to the British government is to prioritise those people in Southeast Asia who share the same values in democracy and human rights, as these values are not exclusively Western but universal and shared, or at least aspired to, by many people in each society.

Thanapat Pekanan is a research associate with the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science.

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