An enormous strategic opportunity has opened up for Europe to shape the Asian century, and help ensure it will be a peaceful and happy one. Among the many experiences that Europe could share with Asia is its great achievement of putting an end to war between any two EU member states. It could also share its experience of generating a high level of international co-operation and eliminating virtually all borders within the EU. In short, Europe has a lot of knowledge to impart at a time when Asia is keen to learn.
Sadly, this is not likely to happen. For centuries, European nations demonstrated their geopolitical competence by collectively dominating the world. Today, the region has reached the other extreme of geopolitical incompetence. The aim of this article is to encourage Europe’s strategic thinkers to focus once more on long-term geopolitical challenges. There are several steps they will have to take to achieve these goals.
The first step is that they need to understand and accept the reality of the Asian century. Several influential Europeans continue to raise doubts about Asia’s rise, and indeed European intellectuals and strategic thinkers generally have little interest in Asia. But there are two critical facts of which European intellectuals and leaders need to take note. The first is that until 1820, China and India were consistently the two largest economies of the world, according to the distinguished economic historian Angus Maddison. So if by 2050 the four largest economies in the world are China, India, the U.S. and Japan, as Goldman Sachs has forecast, we will be witnessing a return to the historical norm rather than a deviation.
The second statistic of note was summed up by Larry Summers, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary who now heads Barack Obama’s National Economic Council. He has compared the rise of Asia with the rise of Western societies, saying: “They called it the Industrial Revolution because there were noticeable changes in standards of living in a human life span – changes of perhaps 50%. At current rates of growth in Asia, standards of living may rise 100 fold, 10,000% within a human life span. The rise of Asia and all that follows it will be the dominant story in history books written 300 years from now with the Cold War and the rise of Islam as secondary stories”. In short, the Asian nations are set to modernise their economies faster than the Europeans ever did.
The second step that must be taken by European thinkers is to understand the remarkable and still rising level of geopolitical competence in Asia. According to European theory and practice, which has been distilled from 19th century European history when several new European powers emerged, there should always be rivalries and zero-sum competition among rising powers. As all the major rising powers of the world are located in Asia, the Asian geopolitical theatre should now be seething with such rivalries. But what is truly remarkable is that suspicion between Asian nations is diminishing rather than rising, seen especially through the more open relations between China and Japan, and China and India.
Much of this is due to China's extraordinary ability in the geopolitical sphere. The Chinese leaders are aware that their country’s rise in power could provoke discomfort both in Washington DC and among its own neighbours. Hence, in a pre-emptive strike against any potential American policy to contain it, China has decided to share its growing prosperity with all of its neighbours. Until recently, the largest trading partner for Japan, South Korea and several of the States grouped in the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was naturally the U.S. But a dramatic shift has taken place in recent years, and today China is the largest trading partner of both Japan and South Korea.
A useful way of measuring geopolitical competence is to compare Europe’s developmental record with that of Africa, China and ASEAN. It should go without saying that Europe is more prosperous than North Africa, as the average per capita yearly income in the EU is almost $31,000 and in the Maghreb countries it is just over $6,000. A tiny pond called the Mediterranean Sea separates Europe from North Africa, while Europe’s population is ageing and that of North Africa is youthful. Simple geopolitical common sense would dictate that Europe should share its prosperity with North Africa to prevent a flood of illegal migrants. Sadly, there is no such common sense in the EU’s geopolitical thinking.
China has taken a different approach, wisely deciding to share its prosperity with the ASEAN nations. Back in November 2001, when Chinese leader Zhu Rongji proposed a free trade area to ASEAN that came as a surprise. He also offered unilateral concessions to ASEAN countries in the form of an “early harvest” of tariff reductions on ASEAN exports to China. When this FTA comes fully into force in 2015 it will be the world’s largest. The China-ASEAN free trade area has also motivated Japan and India to propose similar trade deals to ASEAN that have now been completed. In short, a large part of Asia stretching from India to Japan with almost 3bn people will be involved in a web of mutually beneficial FTAs.
By contrast, the EU has failed to share its prosperity beyond the 495m people inside its borders. The region's strategic thinkers must now reflect on why this is. How has Europe gone from being geopolitically competent to geopolitically incompetent?
Several factors could have contributed to this situation. At a meeting of EU and ASEAN foreign ministers in the early 1990s, the then Belgian foreign minister Willy Claes said that with the end of the Cold War, there were only two superpowers left in the world: the U.S. and the EU. Such hubris has turned out to be short-sighted.
Another reason is the fractured decision-making process in Brussels. Since all 27 EU countries have to be brought on board, decision-making is often driven down to the lowest common denominator. Instead of taking bold strategic steps to deal with a completely different world, the EU crawls forward at the pace of its slowest member. Witness the way one small member, Ireland, could bring the Lisbon treaty project to an abrupt halt. Henry Kissinger was absolutely right in highlighting the EU’s biggest geopolitical handicap: there is still no single phone number to call.
Another example of the EU’s flawed strategic thinking towards Asia is shown in the ASEAN-EU relationship. If Europe’s policies towards Asia were influenced by long-term strategic thinking rather than short-term political posturing, the EU would by now have worked out a long-term policy of co-operation with the other of the two most successful organisations of regional co-operation in the world. ASEAN is in the driver's seat in many of the diplomatic initiatives shaping the new Asian regional architecture. The sooner Europe engages with ASEAN the better positioned it will be to help shape this new architecture in a way that will also advance its own interests. If it doesn't, the architecture will be established without Europe's active participation. Europe will be forced to accept prices instead of setting them.
So rather than taking a long-term view towards Asia, short-term political posturing in Europe has trumped long-term strategic thinking. The EU has put the media-friendly Myanmar issue at the centre of the ASEAN-EU relationship. The entire relationship has been distorted by this one issue because EU politicians wanted to look good in front of their domestic audience by taking a strong stance on Myanmar.
The EU picks on Myanmar because it is an easy target, with no political costs to itself. But in contrast to its willingness to condemn the regime in Myanmar, the EU bends over backwards to accommodate other more repressive countries with worse human rights records, such as North Korea. The EU maintains this double standard because it needs North Korean co-operation on nuclear non-proliferation and also because its policies are subservient to American policies on North Korea. In another important example, the EU failed to officially condemn America for its human rights violations in the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons. Thus the EU showed that it demands high standards of human rights from weak and vulnerable countries, but not from strong and powerful ones.
Just as important, the EU has failed to see how the success of ASEAN could directly help it cope with its biggest long-term strategic challenge: its relationship with the Islamic world, at home and abroad. The first lesson the EU could learn from ASEAN is how to handle cultural diversity. The EU essentially remains a Christian club, failing so far with the spectacular example of Turkey to bring in a single non-Christian member. Conversely, no regional organisation can match ASEAN’s diversity in effortlessly including Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Communist, Islamic, Hindu and other cultures within its fabric.
The second critical lesson the EU should learn from ASEAN is how to handle the modernisation of Islamic countries. If the Islamic societies that lie at its doorstep, such as Algeria and Morocco, successfully modernise and develop they will enhance the long-term security of Europe. So far, with the possible exception of Turkey, three of the most successful Islamic societies are ASEAN members, namely Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, all three of which could serve as models of development for other Islamic societies, including those at Europe’s door.
The saddest part of Europe’s very limited strategic thinking is that not a single European leader has been able to articulate a long-term vision of how Europe and Asia can work together to enhance each other’s security. To make matters worse, Europe’s strategic thinking has become subservient to that of America. For all its so-called strength and power, Europe is unable to come up with an independent policy towards Asia.
The Asian century is just beginning, and now is the time to act. If Europe makes the right strategic investments at this stage, it could reap rich dividends. If it does not it will miss many golden opportunities and, worse still, damage its own long-term security. Both regions will benefit from a closer partnership. Asia is ready to look towards Europe. But the big question we face in the 21st century is whether Europe is ready to look east.