The U.K. has a new king. What does that mean for ASEAN?

The 6 May coronation of Charles III marked a new era for the British monarchy as the ceremonies caught some interest in parts of its former colonies in Southeast Asia. In this Q&A, the Southeast Asia Globe caught up with analyst and new author Charles Dunst to talk about the U.K.’s modern relevance in the region

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May 7, 2023
The U.K. has a new king. What does that mean for ASEAN?
People raise British flags as they wait for the livestream of the coronations taking place in London of Britain's King Charles III and Britain's Camilla, Queen Consort, while gathered in Quezon City, suburban Manila on 6 May, 2023. Photo: Jam Sta Rosa/AFP

The bars in Singapore’s Boat Quay glowed gold with celebratory pints and the glare of television screens on Saturday as customers flocked the popular tourist and expat hotspot to watch a man almost 11,000 miles away make the biggest career move of his life.

On 6 May, the coronation of Charles III, formerly Prince of Wales, marked his formal accession to the throne of England. Since the passing of his mother, Elizabeth II, on 8 September from old age, the role of monarch has passed to her eldest son and heir. Charles’ second wife, Camilla, was crowned queen. 

The British monarchy has a longstanding history with Southeast Asia. For some countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, the gilt and pomp of the ceremony holds vestiges of a colonial past. For others, their own monarchy has ties with the British family. 

The late Queen Elizabeth’s second visit to Thailand coincided with the Golden Jubilee of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX. She recalled that her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, had been penpals with King Mongkut, Rama IV, and that the bond “has been carried forward to our generation”.

As the British monarchy enters a new era, Charles Dunst, senior associate and deputy director of research and analytics at The Asia Group advisory firm, spoke to Southeast Asia Globe about the coronation’s significance in the region and the next frontier of U.K.-ASEAN relations. Dunst is also the author of a recently published book titled Defeating The Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail In The Age Of The Strongman.

People watch coverage of the coronation of Britain’s King Charles III at a pub in Bangkok on 6 May, 2023. Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP

Do you think this coronation is significant to Southeast Asia? 
The coronation is something of a soft power moment of the United Kingdom, with the eyes of the world on London for the pomp and circumstance – rather than the recent chaos of British politics. 

For Southeast Asian countries which hold historical colonial relationships with the U.K., such as Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar, how do you feel this coronation and the monarchy will be received? 
Singapore and Malaysia both have cooperative relations with the United Kingdom. And while the coronation might dredge up some memories of empire, both countries’ leaders welcome U.K. economic and security engagement. Burma’s junta was not invited to the coronation, likely hardening the regime’s negative view of the U.K. and broader West. Overall, there is much more resentment towards the British in Africa and the Caribbean than in Southeast Asia, where views of the U.K. are mostly positive.

What impact do you think this coronation will have on other monarchies, in particular those in Southeast Asia?
The British monarchy offers a bit of an example of how monarchies can transition from powerful entities to more cultural ones. But most of Southeast Asia’s monarchies are focused on holding power – not relinquishing it in the name of democracy.

Can Charles be a similar figurehead as Elizabeth was in the region?
Charles is something of an unknown in much of Southeast Asia. Elizabeth was well-liked in many circles, but that seems like mostly because of what she represented rather than her personality. Charles is well-placed to carry on the legacy, particularly given his demonstrated interest in Islam – which may be well-received in Indonesia and Malaysia. 

Does the U.K. still hold significance in Southeast Asia?
Southeast Asian leaders see the United Kingdom as a practical partner on economic and security issues. Most officials, especially younger ones, have largely moved beyond the issue of empire. As Southeast Asia looks to diversify its relations in the era of U.S.-China competition, the region will welcome U.K. investment and security assistance.

The British High Commissioner to Singapore spoke at the end of last year about the “strong ties” between U.K. and ASEAN. What are your thoughts on this, and what do you think it means for their trade and defence relations going forward?
U.K.-ASEAN ties are reasonably strong, and should be able to go from strength to strength. The U.K. has already joined the CPTPP [Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership], has a trade deal with Vietnam, and is pursuing a trade deal with Indonesia. Westminster may look to strike similar deals with the other Southeast Asian countries sooner rather than later. 

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