THE world is transforming fast. The starting point for any discussion about the nations of Asean must be their inexorable rise as global economic and political players.
In the United Kingdom, we recognise that this region is essential to achieving our foreign policy goals and as an engine of economic growth for the world. For that reason I am pleased to be visiting Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam this week, following visits to Southeast Asia this year by Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague.
More British diplomats are now working in Southeast Asia to strengthen our relationship with the region. When our new embassy opens in Vientiane, Laos this year, the UK will be represented in every Asean State.
Taken as a whole, Southeast Asia is already the eighth largest economy in the world and contains several of the fastest growing national economies.
At the European Union-Asean Business Summit in April we had an important discussion of the challenges and opportunities ahead for businesses in a more integrated Asean. The UK sees great promise in Asean’s vision of a single economic community by 2015.
We are working with our EU colleagues to conclude ambitious trade agreements with countries in the region including Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore.
I am proud that the UK is consistently rated the easiest place to do business in Europe and I welcome the role of Asian companies in the UK: one of the largest investments last year was from Thailand’s steel manufacturer SSI.
And as a world-leader in education, financial services and sustainable, low-carbon technology, the UK has much to offer Southeast Asia. We see this, for example, in the new UK-Asean knowledge partnership, a multi-million pound initiative designed to support education and research development links between the UK and the countries of Southeast Asia.
Malaysia is seeing a number of UK universities setting up in the near future on the back of the consistently large number of students studying for UK qualifications both locally and in the UK.
Cambodia has world-class UK garment manufacturers, and also growing education links between our universities and more young people studying in the UK, and world-class British engineering services behind sustainable buildings.
The UK values our strong co-operation with Southeast Asian countries on security issues: our Strategic Partnership with Vietnam; our role in the Five Power Defence Arrangement with Singapore and Malaysia; co-operation in counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation and promoting maritime security.
Later this month the UK will accede to Asean’s Treaty of Amity and Co-operation at a ceremony in Cambodia. With the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, we will sign a protocol to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.
I look forward to deepening our security relationship with Asean through these events and to extending the areas in which we work together.
There are emerging challenges too. My colleague the Minister for the Armed Forces Nick Harvey spoke about the rapidly evolving issue of cyber security at the Shangri La Defence Dialogue last month.
Threats posed by online organised crime, terrorist radicalisation or intellectual property theft are not bound by national borders; states must come together to address them. In doing so, we must equally protect our citizens’ rights to freedom of expression.
I firmly believe that democracy and accountability are the foundation stones of long-term security and prosperity: they ensure that governments are answerable to the people, as well as peaceful transition of governments. They promote innovation; and support economic success.
Two weeks ago the UK was privileged to welcome Aung San Suu Kyi, a tireless advocate for democracy. The changes begun by President Thein Sein are truly historic and the UK supports all those engaged in the process of bringing democratic reform to Myanmar.
The Asean Charter makes clear the commitment of its members to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights has an opportunity to embed these values even more firmly into Asean’s work through the Human Rights Declaration that will be presented to foreign ministers later this month, and through contributions from civil society in Asean.
As the Foreign Secretary said in Singapore earlier this year, the UK’s engagement in Asia is not an option, but an imperative. We welcome Asean and her member states playing a more active role in addressing global issues, as we welcome your emergence as economic powers and the growth in opportunity for your people.
Our diplomatic and economic investment here will be for the long-term: for stronger relations between the UK and Asian nations; for greater trade and investment; and for a more secure world.