Relations with ASEAN need to move higher up Europe’s foreign policy agenda. Thirty-five years of cooperation between European and ASEAN policymakers has resulted in good progress in forging a stronger relationship, but more still needs to be done. The EU has now signed up to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in southeast Asia, which is ASEAN’s core document for peace and stability in the region, and when EU and ASEAN foreign ministers met not long ago in Brunei they pledged further improvements in bilateral ties between the two regions. And in what is being seen as a significant development, Baroness Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, attended the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh in July, ending a much-remarked two years absence.
Increased EU interest in ASEAN is welcome and important, but broadening the current level of EU-ASEAN engagement is going to be crucially important, and will demand regular summit meetings between EU and ASEAN leaders. And even then, ministerial contacts between the two regions will not be enough, for the EU should also appoint a special ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta whose sole responsibility would be to handle relations with the organisation.
It’s a relationship that hasn’t always been easy. The EU-ASEAN dialogue has been overshadowed by difficult situations like East Timor and Myanmar, not to speak of the Asian financial crisis in the mid-1990s whose impact was hardest of all in the ASEAN countries. At the time, the EU was preoccupied with its own internal matters, notably German reunification, the completion of the Single Market, its northern and eastern enlargements and involvement in the bloody conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia.
Today, though, few need reminding that south east Asia has become an economic powerhouse. The ASEAN countries, with a population of 613mn and a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion (for purposes of comparison, India’s GDP is $1.8 trillion), stand poised to create their own frontier-free single market by 2015. And now Myanmar is changing fast, adding to the region’s dynamism. Last year, south east Asian companies made cross-border corporate acquisitions worth $2.3bn and are set to expand further by purchasing more companies in Europe. One of London’s most iconic landmarks, the Battersea power station, has just been acquired by a south east Asian company for $620m and is to be turned into a real estate development.
With Asia-Pacific increasingly a key driver of global politics, witness the United States’ renewed engagement to the region, ASEAN today occupies a key position in the region’s political, security and economic architecture. And the EU has evidently understood the importance of being part of ASEAN’s rise. Europe is a key investor in ASEAN and a supplier of technology, and despite the eurozone crisis, still represents 17% of world trade, as opposed to 12% for the United States. But the EU needs to move beyond trade and investment matters to achieve its goal of becoming a genuinely global player.
When Baroness Ashton signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), she emphasised that “the accession of the EU to TAC…is an important step because it commits us to working together in tackling issues that we face in a peaceful way. It also confirms that we will work together to address some of the security and political concerns of the region”. It is the first time the EU has engaged at a strategic level with ASEAN under a legally-binding framework with a dispute settlement mechanism. The TAC dates back to 1976, and is a legally-binding code of friendly inter-state conduct whose non-ASEAN signatories include Papua New Guinea, China, India, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, Russia, New Zealand, Mongolia, Australia, France, East Timor, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, North Korea, the U.S., Turkey, Canada and the U.K., with Brazil planning to sign up in the near future.
That ASEAN was willing to amend its own Protocol of Accession to allow regional organisations to accede to the TAC reflects its desire to engage with the EU in a much more comprehensive manner. A growing number of projects and programmes are now being implemented as part of the EU-ASEAN partnership, and this year’s ministerials decided to take the relationship to a “higher level, through addressing regional and global challenges of shared concern” with a 2013-2017 timeline. The EU-ASEAN Plan of Action therefore includes cooperation in politics and security as well as economy, trade and socio-cultural issues.
It’s an encouraging development, but still it isn’t enough. Although ASEAN has regularly held summit meetings with such global players as China, Japan, Korea and the U.S., the EU, which also holds summit with the same states, has not viewed ASEAN as a potential strategic partner in these high-level deliberations. ASEAN is similarly guilty of not seeing the advantages of collaborating on these top-level exchanges with the EU.
This must change. Reaching a “higher level” of engagement between ASEAN and the EU needs to be translated into the organisation of regular meetings of leaders, even if not necessarily on a yearly basis.
For the EU, it is important to stress repeatedly that Asia is more than just India, China, Korea and Japan. The EU’s trade with East Asian nations is only able to flourish because of the security of navigation through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, and also the Straits of Sunda and Lombok, whose safety depends on three founding members of ASEAN—Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. To consider ASEAN, or at least an ASEAN member state, as a strategic partner is crucial, regardless of the endless debate in Brussels on what “strategic partnerships” actually mean.
To ensure the better implementation of the cooperation programmes in the new Plan of Action, the EU should be setting up a special delegation in Jakarta for ASEAN affairs. The head of delegation would oversee EU-ASEAN relations and establish contacts with ASEAN’s Committee of Permanent Representatives and other key secretariat officials. This is already being done by the U.S., China and Japan, all of which have appointed special ambassadors to deal with ASEAN. So if EU-ASEAN relations are to be brought to a “higher level” within the context of a global power shift to the Asia-Pacific region, managing ASEAN-EU relations needs to be made a full-time job.
The EU, even though its member states account for 21% of the world’s military spending, versus 5% for China and 3% for Russia, is not and will never be a military power in the Asia-Pacific region. In the context of the region’s security architecture, the EU therefore needs to define its strategic edge in contributing to regional peace. The EU could consider becoming a party to the ASEAN nuclear weapon free zone treaty and other initiatives which seek to share expertise in conflict management. ASEAN could, for its part, share with the EU some of its own experience in achieving what was a relatively quick rebound from the 1997 financial crisis. Indonesia, for instance, saw its GDP grow from a mere $90bn in 1999 to $1 trillion for this year.
It is critically important to underline that the EU’s dealings with ASEAN cannot be conducted only by the Council, the European External Action Service and the EU’s trade, development and humanitarian affairs Commissioners. Other members of the European Commission who regularly visit East Asian countries should be encouraged to enter into much more engaged relations with ASEAN so as to deal with questions like illegal fishing and logging, which are rarely if even discussed.
Travel to the EU for ASEAN countries’ citizens is still limited by discrepancies in the EU’s policies under the Schengen regime towards different ASEAN member states. Fears that ASEAN citizens will immigrate and flock to Europe are clearly unwarranted, whereas what needs to be vigorously promoted are ASEAN-EU youth exchanges and the establishment of study centres in European and Asian universities that focus on the relationship between Asia-Pacific and Europe. This is strategically important because at present these EU member states that have no historical links to ASEAN countries tend to place ASEAN at third or fourth level in their foreign policy priorities, while member states with historical relations with the region are sometimes stuck in a colonial mindset. More study centres and think-tanks across the region would help create a cadre of academics free of historical bias.
Thinking on these matters needs to be placed in the perspective of the current situation, in the EU and in ASEAN. Many ASEAN leaders and policymakers are hungry for a long-term vision of Europe, not least because that’s important for their own policymaking.
Arif Havas Oegroseno is Indonesia’s ambassador to the EU. email@example.com