DON’T look now but there is a quiet revolution under way in Europe’s relations with Asia. For decades, the European Union (EU) played up its economic credentials in Asia. Certainly, Asians value Europe as the region’s second largest trading partner and the biggest investor.
But while the trade and economics agenda remains strong and EU-Asia economic interdependence is growing by the day, the EU and Asia — or at least some countries in Asia — are widening their conversation to cover more than business.
As Asia faces up to a host of old and new tensions, there is recognition in both regions that it is time Europe and Asia switched the focus from trade to security.
Europeans have long believed — and many Asians have argued — that the absence of ‘hard’ military power erodes Europe’s standing in Asia. Europe’s ‘soft power’ was viewed as inferior to American and Chinese ‘hard power’.
This was possibly true a decade ago. But Asia’s remarkable rise in the 21st century — and China’s rapid ascendance as the region’s dominant nation — has prompted a radical reassessment of the challenges facing the region.
The US ‘pivot’ or rebalancing towards Asia responds to some of the region’s military concerns linked to China’s rise. But military threats are not the only question on Asia’s new agenda. Asian policymakers today are increasingly turning their attention to tackling non-traditional security issues, an area where the EU has acquired special skills and expertise.
Uneasy about the dangerous political and security fault lines that run across the region, many in Asia believe they can learn from Europe’s valuable experience in ensuring peace, easing tensions and handling conflicts.
Indonesia’s former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda, says the ‘Asian century’ must be about more than dynamic economic growth rates; rising Asia must also become a region of sustained peace and stability.
The point is also made strongly by Javier Solana, the EU’s former foreign and security policy chief. As an “unfinished content” where historical wounds have not fully healed and where reconciliation has not been achieved, Asia needs norms, rules and institutions which ensure peaceful coexistence, Solana wrote recently. Having successfully reconciled once-warring parties, Europe has a “unique toolbox on offer”, Solana says. The EU must, however, become better at projecting these special qualities and skills.
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s current foreign and security policy chief, did point out last month at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore — the region’s informal but very influential security forum — that the EU’s strength lies in its ability to work on a “comprehensive” approach which includes a wide range of tools and instruments that are short- and long-term, humanitarian and development, security and political, to tackle new challenges. And she is right: this mix does certainly make Europe a “unique global partner for Asia on security issues”.
The message was delivered again at the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), a gathering of Asian foreign ministers and key global players to discuss security questions. It needs to be repeated and articulated with more conviction, resonance — and empathy. Asians — or at least the wise men and women in Asia — know that the current situation whereby the region is integrated on the economic front but fragmented in terms of security is untenable in the long term. Neither India nor Pakistan can tap their full potential as long as they quarrel over Kashmir and responsibility for cross-border terrorism.
Asean is struggling to maintain a united front in the face of China’s assertiveness as regards its historical territorial claims in the South China Seas. China and Japan — the world’s second and third largest economies — are at loggerheads over islands in the East China Seas. Meanwhile, North Korea strikes fear in the hearts of Asians and Europeans alike.
Given these potentially explosive conflicts, many in Asia want to learn from Europe’s successes in regional integration and institution-building. They want to be inspired by Europe’s peace and reconciliation project and the vision of the EU founding fathers who promised that there would be no more wars in Europe. Europeans may take peace for granted but many in Asia know that peace and stability in their region is fragile. One wrong move, and the hopes of the Asian century could vanish into thin air. Stronger engagement on Asian security issues will require a deeper EU dialogue with Asean, which is in the forefront of pan-Asian peace-building efforts.
It means regular participation in Asian meetings by European ministers and senior EU officials as well as constructive contributions to ways in which the ARF could move from its current focus on confidence-building to preventive diplomacy.
Proposals to organise a gathering of all signatories of the Asean Treaty on Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the security blueprint for the region which the EU signed last year can also be pursued. The EU’s security interest in the region is not just about ensuring the safety of sea lanes and navigation in Asian waters. Europe can help and inspire Asia as it seeks to ease historical enmities, build sustained peace and tackle non-traditional security challenges.
Europeans will also have to make cautious moves to start discussing security issues with Pakistan and India — and slowly but surely make it clear that growth, development and prosperity in South Asia is conditional on the two countries putting their historical enmities aside.
Afghanistan needs to be brought into the conversation. The EU’s economic success is laudable but as Asia struggles to contain its many conflicts, Europe’s story of building peace and reconciliation resonates with equal force across the region.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.