Opinion: Democracy and human rights must come first for ‘Global Britain’ in Asia

After meeting with local human rights defenders during her visit to Thailand on January 11, Amanda Milling, the Minister for Asia at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), took to Twitter to reaffirm that “the UK holds the principles of democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression close to our hearts.”

As I similarly argued here, this is a strategic game carried out by the FCDO’s advisors who are in charge of topics related Thailand.

Unfortunately, it is not a well-considered strategy because the British government has not backed up their pro-democracy and pro human-rights rhetoric with meaningful action. This geopolitical move can be traced back to last year when Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, only talked about improving trade relations with Thailand. At the same time, it is also a strategic move, because clearly those in power in the FCDO did not want to upset the Thai establishment.  

It is undeniable that the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, China’s aggressive behaviour in the West Philippine Sea, Vietnam’s East Sea—or the “South China Sea” (SCS) as it is referred to by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang and Hong Kong, China’s threats against Taiwan, and Thailand’s appalling record on freedom of speech and expression are the real challenges in the Indo-Pacific arena and the biggest threats to the values of Global Britain. 

However, the choice of action taken Westminster is to not upset the apple cart when engaging with governments with dodgy rights records.

Among the other great powers present during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, last year, Britain was one of the few great powers from the liberal democratic world which did not even comment on, let alone support, the need to reform the law which hinders free speech and imprisons political dissidents in Southeast Asia.  

Sending the UK aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to disputed areas near the SCS appeared to mark a serious commitment to supporting the idea of freedom of navigation. But onlookers could not help thinking that it was nothing more than a postural response aimed at raising Britain’s international profile in the debate within the Westminster bubble.

The defence of Hong Kong passports rights is not enough to help protect the free will people of Hong Kong from China’s wrath. 

Taking all these issues into consideration, it is hard to gauge the British government’s commitment to democracy and human rights in the Indo-Pacific region. The British government’s postural acts are in contrast with the concern raised by Secretary Truss during her speech at the Conservative Party Conference: 

“….The democratic world order faces a stark choice. Either we retreat and retrench in the face of malign actors … or we club together and advance the cause of freedom…..”

Could this mark an auspicious moment for Britain, taking a bolder and more assertive foreign policy approach and a call to arms to “club together” in order to secure the trust of the democracy-loving and free will people of the Indo-Pacific region? Will the Conservative government stand up and show the world that Britain, as a great power, is able to exercise its resources diplomatically and militarily around the world by helping those who share the same values of democracy and human rights in authoritarian regimes in the Indo-Pacific region, instead of clinging on to the usual diplomatic protocol of non-interference? 

If it is to assert itself in any meaningful way on the regional stage, it should lead a dialogue about the R2P or some kinds of humanitarian military interventions in Myanmar.

I mentioned this point before in this article but let me reiterate this again that, in the meantime, Britain must understand that no matter what actions it takes in the Indo-Pacific region, others will use its colonial history to prevent and undermine its efforts to support people who are mistreated by their own governments.

Ironically, those who would revert to this trump card are often fundamentalists and nationalists who have been in power for a long time in East and Southeast Asia. Oftentimes, they have stood firmly against Western interests, especially on the issues of democracy and human rights. As a case in point, the Chinese state-run media have been portraying Britain’s pivot to Asia as an act of neo-colonialism. 

Regardless, Britain must stand firm to its values of democracy and human rights. Sometimes, this requires a bold approach in putting troops on the ground to protect the free will and democracy loving people, who share the same values of “Global Britain”, from violence committed by their own states. 

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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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