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Asia

Jonathan Eyal
Wednesday, Jul 9, 2014

Asia

The Asia 'pivots' of Britain and France

The Straits Times | Jonathan Eyal | Wednesday, Jul 9, 2014

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel is greeted with full state honours in Beijing this morning, diplomats from France and Britain will be watching her movements with beady eyes.

That's not because either the British or the French want Dr Merkel to fail. Europe's prosperity depends on the success of Germany as the continent's biggest economy and that, in turn, is predicated on thriving German trade with China.

Still, unlike Germany, both Britain and France have diversified their approach to Asia from a simple mercantilist one of just selling or buying goods to a broader engagement in Asia's military and security concerns.

And both the British and French resent the fact that their efforts are still overshadowed by a Germany which continues to be interested in only Asian trade, rather than any other diplomatic complications.

Many of Asia's security analysts seem to derive particular pleasure from dismissing Britain and France as yesterday's stories, countries which once lorded over the world but are now locked in an irreversible decline.

As one dismissive remark often made by regional specialists puts it, Britain's royal navy once dominated all of Asia's waterways but now would struggle to deploy even one frigate to the South China Sea.

Curiously, however, the same analysts who take potshots at the supposed impotence of Europe's old colonial powers also assert in the same breath that economic clout and good governance matter more than military force in providing solutions to Asia's current security problems.

Yet on both these counts, France and Britain remain key global players.

Behind their significance

In terms of size of gross domestic product, the French and the British economies rank as the fifth- and sixth-largest in the world: the national economy of either one of them is bigger than those all the ASEAN economies combined.

Rightly or wrongly, the British and the French also retain veto powers on the United Nations Security Council.

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