Recent U.K. government engagement with Asia has seen high-level visits to Japan and China, a growing role for London in the internationalization of China’s currency, the renmibi (RMB), and enhanced commercial diplomacy across Asia. This is in the context of a U.K. foreign policy that remains global in outlook. However, London’s continued focus on the Middle East in particular means that Asia’s relative importance in U.K. policy remains uncertain.
The best place to start looking at the current U.K. government’s Asia policy is still the April 2012 speech given in Singapore by Foreign Secretary William Hague. The overall message of the speech was that Britain was committed to developing its relationships in Asia. The question the U.K. faces is how to do so.
One of the features of Hague’s Foreign Office has been what diplomats call the “network shift,” which involves increasing the resources put into diplomatic posts in countries considered emerging powers, at the same time that resources elsewhere have been reduced and the overall diplomatic budget has shrunk. As Hague’s language of “the new powers of the 21st century” suggests, this shift is not just about Asia, but about aligning diplomatic resources more closely with important global changes as economies emerge and new actors come to the fore in international politics. British diplomatic posts in China and India, for example, have benefited from this shift. Elsewhere, the Myanmar government’s change in approach to the West initiated in late 2011 has led to greater efforts by the U.K. to pursue opportunities there.