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EU interest in Asia

July 14, 2012


PARTICIPANTS at Asia’s top security conference in Cambodia last week may not have managed to resolve territorial disputes over the South China Sea but the meeting signalled the European Union’s return to Asia as an active player and a very visible transatlantic commitment to work together to ensure peace and development in Asia.

The decision by Cathy Ashton, EU ‘high representative’ on foreign and security policy, to attend the Asean Regional Forum in Phnom Penh was a long time coming.

Having stayed away from the ARF for two consecutive years, Ashton came under strong pressure to attend this year’s gathering from EU member states and also the US which has long urged Europe to engage more strongly with Asia.

In Phnom Penh, Ashton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed closer consultation on advancing regional security, development, wellbeing and prosperity in Asia. Optimistically, they also “welcomed an active and constructive role for China in the Asia-Pacific region”.

In fact, the US ‘pivot’ towards Asia announced last year has resulted in a stronger EU interest in the region, with many policymakers admitting that Europe and Asia need to work more actively and forcefully together to tackle 21st-century challenges.

Certainly, the EU will never be a ‘Pacific power’ and should have no ambition of becoming one. But neither can it remain passively on the side lines of developments in Asia.

In an interdependent, globalised world where no one nation, bloc or region can claim to lead the rest, where security is about more than military spending and where nations are connected to each other by a dense web of trade and investments, Europe-Asia cooperation is the only option.

It’s not about whether Europeans have the time, energy or interest in Asia or whether Asians think Europe is still relevant. It’s about the economy and the challenge of ensuring sustained global growth. It’s about dealing with climate change, pandemics, humanitarian disasters and poverty. It’s also about preventing tensions and conflicts which can endanger global peace and security.

None of these challenges can be tackled by one nation or region on its own. Certainly US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reassured Southeast Asian nations of America’s renewed commitment to the region. But, exhausted by two long-drawn wars and beset by shrill election-year domestic concerns, the US has made clear that it is no longer ready to play global policeman or global peacemaker. Despite its growing economic clout, China has never laid claim to being an international leader and is unlikely to do so in the near future. Russia’s global ambitions are not credible. India is not interested.

In contrast, whether they like it or not, Europeans are expected to think and act globally, stand up for certain key universal principles, to be generous and kind to victims and get tough with bullies.

For all their criticism of Europe — and despite the eurozone crisis — even the fiercest Asian commentators recognise that Asians can learn much from Europe. Asians have never liked European ‘arrogance’ in lecturing and hectoring them on their perceived deficits and weaknesses. But they admire much that is European including European technology, products and culture. In order to keep growing, Asians need European markets and investments.

True, dealing with China, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is not easy. Political reform in China remains a distant dream, economic liberalisation is patchy and dissidence is met with repression. Indian democracy is messy and even as it claims ‘great power’ status, millions of Indians live in dire poverty. Asean integration is slow, painful and incomplete and decision-making in the 10-nation bloc is often very complicated.

But the economic reality is simple: the EU is China’s biggest and Asean’s third-biggest trading partner. It is also the largest investor in Asean countries with an average of 20.6 per cent of foreign direct investment over the past three years.

The EU has signed free-trade agreements with South Korea and is negotiating others with India, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. The recent EU-Asean ministerial meeting in Brunei saw the adoption of an action plan aimed at further building ties between the two regions.

In Cambodia, the EU is expected to finally sign the AseanTreaty of Amity and Cooperation which could pave the way for EU participation — one day — in the increasingly influential East Asia summit.

Without a hard military presence in Asia, the EU will never carry as much clout as the US. As they fret about China’s territorial claims in the South China Seas, Vietnam and the Philippines need America’s reassuring embrace. Certainly a crisis in the South China Sea would also be disastrous for EU trade with the region. As such, Ashton’s presence at the Asean Regional Forum is a good signal of EU interest and concern.

Europe can make other constructive contributions, especially since the basic premise of Asean security discussions is about building trust and confidence, preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution, issues that Europeans know a thing or two about. The ARF meeting in Cambodia also discussed disaster management — another area of strong European expertise.

In November EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso will be in Vientiane, Laos, for a summit with 19 leading Asian leaders. Barroso is also expected to attend the Bali Democracy Forum and make an official visit to Indonesia.

Last year’s US ‘pivot’ or renewed engagement with Asia has certainly prompted Europe to put some new life into its lacklustre relations with the region. The challenge now is to ensure Europe’s sustained presence in Asia, in the interest of both regions.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.