An impressive array of top European leaders flocked to Laos on 5 November to take part in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).
The French president François Hollande, President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso teamed up with their Asian counterparts in the normally tranquil atmosphere of Vientiane. Is this part of Europe’s pivot to Asia?
ASEM members represent together more than 60 per cent of international commerce. So the EU can still make a mark in Asia, particularly in the area of trade. Indeed, when people in Asia think about Europe their immediate association is the ongoing debt crisis. Countries in Asia, and particularly China, follow the crisis with acute interest because the EU is one of their largest export destinations.
Undeterred by the crisis at home, the EU has begun to spin out its own network of FTAs in Asia. A deal with South Korea was concluded last year and negotiations are under way with India and several ASEAN countries. Japan is next in line, and even China has reached out to the EU, worrying that it could be left out in the same way that it has been from the Trans-Pacific Parternship. The EU is showing why it still matters for Asian economies.
Europe’s engagement with broader questions of Asian security is a different story. Europeans are still conspicuously absent, as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told a crowd of European foreign policy experts recently in Berlin. If ‘the world is moving to become an Asia Pacific world’, he asked, where does Europe fit in?
Europeans retain a somewhat one-dimensional vision of Asia’s rise and consider the region to be a place of economic opportunities. But the wave of disputes over islands and rocks between China and its neighbours is evidence of dangerous undercurrents in Asia.
Recently, though, Brussels has taken greater notice of the broader issues. High Representative Catherine Ashton says she is in the middle of an ‘Asian Semester’ as she attends different regional meetings and wants to label the EU as an ‘Asian partner’. All the member states in the union recently signed up to new guidelines for European policy in East Asia, including on difficult issues such as the South China Sea. And at the last ASEAN Regional Forum, Ashton teamed up with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on joint cooperation in Asia.
Asian territorial disputes will test the EU’s resolve at the ASEM summits. China is working to push the item off the agenda. Back in July, China appeared to split ASEAN at a foreign ministers meeting when the summit ended without even the usual bland communiqué. Host country Cambodia apparently sought to appease China by leaving out a reference to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but Vietnam and the Philippines, which have a direct stake in the disputes, refused to endorse the draft. In the build-up to the ASEM summit European countries received démarches on China’s strong wish to see the issue disappear at this meeting as well.
EU–ASEAN relations stand at an interesting new point, with the two parties poised to increase cooperation. In the past, the EU and ASEAN have been divided on how to approach Burma, with Europeans clamouring for sanctions and ASEAN insisting on quiet diplomacy. As reform gets underway in Burma, the EU and ASEAN can work together to create development opportunities there. The EU recently upgraded its presence in Burma, which bodes well for cooperation.
Moreover, after the euro crisis the EU can no longer claim to be the pinnacle of regional integration. The EU’s fall gives it an opportunity to reboot relations with ASEAN on a more equal basis. Both organisations have trouble making their joint voice heard and both tend to allow their unity to be split by outside powers. The two have a common problem; both need to figure out how to become better as regional organisations.
Finally, the EU can use its relations with ASEAN as a ticket into further regional meetings. The EU isn’t invited to the East Asia Summit, for example, though it has been meekly requesting observer status. But the EU will only get in to these meetings if it rethinks its approach. The rest of the world is slightly exasperated with the number of Europeans in the G20. An EU presence at the East Asia Summit could be composed of President Van Rompuy, President Barosso, High Representative Ashton and a local president. Britain, Germany and France might want to step in, too, looking after their national interest. The Europeans would squeeze out everybody else in the room in such a scenario. So at the East Asia Summit, one of the requirements for a seat seems to be that Europe needs to have a credible interlocutor who can pass on their joint messages.
The EU must wake up to the new reality in Asia. It is no longer guaranteed a seat at the table and must work harder to remain relevant. ASEM is a good opportunity for it to do so.
Jonas Parello-Plesner is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
This article was first published on China–US Focus on 6 November.