Geopolitics

The EU and South East Asia – Why Europe Needs to Become an Active Player

Crisis overload seems to have become a permanent modus operandi for the European Union. Actually, there is a kind of pile-up of domestic and internal crises to be dealt with at the same time, with every one of them as a big challenge for the European Union. On one side, there is the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and multiple conflicts in the Middle East – from Syria and Iraq to Israel and Palestine to the evolving of an authoritarian regime in Egypt and the perpetual worsening of the situation in Libya. On another side, Europe is confronted with the threats of Islamist terrorism and this hit home more powerfully than before in the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris.

In addition, the election of a new government in Greece highlights and exacerbates the internal conflicts over the future direction of the EU integration project. Moves by different actors have contributed to undermining the principles of European cooperation. There is too much taste for confrontation and for the idea of national power and sovereignty, presently. Populist and xenophobic movements are successful in many EU Member States. In summary, the EU has to deal with crises internally and face a global environment, which questions the very idea of an international order.

Being Proactive

How the EU chooses to deal with this huge package of challenges is the key question for the future. I believe such crises could provide an impetus to strengthen a community approach and support the development of a more powerful role for the EU. To achieve this, however, the EU has to switch from a crisis-reaction mode to a proactive mode of shaping politics, internal and external.

Externally, the challenge of developing a proactive role is particularly huge. First, there is a need for strategic plans and second for implementing these plans with a real common foreign and security policy. Therefore, to become a relevant and powerful actor is directly linked to the responses given to the internal crisis. The economic crisis in the south of Europe is not only a catastrophe for the people in the region; it goes hand in hand with the rise of anti-European populist parties, as can be seen, among others, in Greece. Even if the new Greek government hasn’t tried to stop the sanctions against Russia yet, it is obvious that a common foreign policy towards Russia will be more complicated with Syriza in government. Thus, a new answer to the economic crisis, especially in Southern Europe, is overdue. The austerity policy of the last years has demonstrated its failure – and it has led to very negative consequences. A change of course is necessary. Only the German chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble are apparently the last dinosaurs defending the one-sided austerity policy.

Could the EU play a positive role here that might even help change the perspective for a win-win outlook?

The other important condition for a more powerful role of the EU is, as said above, to develop and implement strategic plans step by step. In this context, it is obvious that the EU needs a strategic plan for its relations with Russia, which can no longer be limited to only reacting to the recent developments in Eastern Ukraine. There is also no doubt that the EU needs a strategic plan for the situation in the Middle East.

Furthermore, even if it is not as obvious as in the afore-mentioned cases, the EU also needs a strategic plan for a common foreign and security policy towards the South East Asia Region – this is long overdue.

“Get the EU Interested”

A few weeks ago, an ambassador of a member-state of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) told me: “Perhaps we need a big crisis in our area as well, to get the EU interested in our region”. Well, even without a “big crisis”, the region has seen rising tensions for years. From the European angle, though, the situation in South East Asia is very much out of focus. This is negligent, not only because the EU could play a constructive and positive role towards this region. The EU could support efforts to prevent the escalation of conflicts and could actively help to shape cooperation policies. In addition, the way of dealing with the struggle of interests and the conflicts in this region could be a model and decisive element for the rebuilding of the international order, based on principles of cooperation, multilateralism and the respect of international law.

The South China Sea is a key region for global trade, especially when it comes to trade with the EU. South East Asia has 600 million inhabitants and is economically one of the fastest growing regions of the world. The EU is the third biggest commercial partner for the ASEAN-states (after China and Japan) with more than €235 billion of trade in goods and services in 2012; that is approximately 13% of the total trade volume of ASEAN states. The EU is also by far the largest investor in ASEAN countries. For the EU, ASEAN as a whole represents the third largest trading partner outside Europe (after the US and China).

Moreover, ASEAN is the most important multilateral body in the region, following a logic of cooperation and integration, which can be compared with the EU, even if it is less integrated and integrated in a different way. In contrast to the EU, ASEAN prefers to operate on the basis of informality, consensus, non-binding decisions and non-interference in internal matters. The member states of the association are Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. As weak as this association may seem, this structure has massively contributed to peace and stability in the South-East region since its formation in 1967.

Watch Out for China (And the U.S.)

For several years now, the South East Asia region and the ASEAN member countries have been under increasing pressure from the evolving power struggle between China and the US. After having followed a concept of safeguarding its own security through beneficial cooperation based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence for many years (which called for the resolution of territorial conflicts through peaceful negotiation, and for the promotion of common prosperity, mutual benefit and common development – as described in ‘China’s Position Paper on the New Security Concept’), China is changing its foreign policy towards more assertiveness, particularly visible since the take-over of Xi Jinping at the end of 2012.

The German chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble are apparently the last dinosaurs defending the one-sided austerity policy.

For decades, China had claimed the so-called “nine-dash line”, citing “historical rights”. That U-shape line reaches 1500 kilometres south of Hainan Island and covers more than 80% of the South China Sea. China acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) in 1996, nevertheless it continues to use the “nine-dash line” to call for its “historical” maritime domain and its desire to control the fisheries, minerals and other maritime resources, as well as the potentially vast oil and gas deposits to be found there. With a rising demand of resources, due to its fast economic growth, the exploitation of this region is evidently becoming increasingly important to China.

On the other hand, the Obama Administration declared the pacific region a region of main interest to the US. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out in an article entitled “America’s Pacific Century” in the magazine Foreign Policy in October 2011: “The future of politics will be decided in Asia […] and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”

Furthermore, Kurt Campbell, the former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, wrote in August 2013: “The United States government is in the early stages of a substantial national project: reorienting significant elements of its foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region and encouraging many of its partners outside the region to do the same. The “strategic pivot” or rebalancing, launched four years ago, is premised on the recognition that the lion’s share of the political and economic history of the 21st century will be written in the Asia-Pacific region.”

In fact, the importance that the US stresses on its political, security and economic relations with Asia is consistently mentioned by President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials.

A Lose-Lose Situation

In the last few years, both the US (with Japan on its side) and China have tried to strengthen their relations with the ASEAN-partners. Even though neither China nor the US is interested in an open conflict, as their mutual economic interests are too important and closely linked, they both try to enlarge their influence in the region, acting in unilateral ways. The ASEAN-countries are caught up in this struggle of influence. In different ways, they try to have good relations with both sides. This ‘sandwich-situation’ however is not allowing them to fully play their role in contributing to a peaceful resolution of the increasing tensions and conflicts in the region. This could become a lose-lose situation in the region, as neither of the players will get what it really wants (or needs).

Now the question is: could the EU play a positive role here that might even help change the perspective for a win-win outlook?

Even if the EU-ASEAN relations are stable and good on the trade level, the contribution of the EU to the security situation is dominated thus far mainly by non-regulated arms exports from the different member countries. In the last ten years, the military spending increased in South East Asia by 41%, from $20.7 billion to $29.1 billion. From 2004 to 2013 the EU was responsible for more than a third (39%) of the arms export to South East Asia, followed by Russia with 29% and the US with 22%.

This extent of arms exports conflicts with the common EU position on arms exports control. It should be a main task of the common foreign and security policy of the EU to change track.

The South China Sea is a key region for global trade, especially when it comes to trade with the EU.

A Strategic Plan is Needed

The newest EU achievement in ASEAN relation has been installing a diplomatic mission to the ASEAN headquarters in Indonesia, but it will not be enough that the EU now has this Head of Mission in Jakarta and that the EU financially supports the building up of ASEAN structures. Beyond this, the EU should develop a strategic plan on how to strengthen the ASEAN as a key player in the region, which could and should contribute to preventing the escalation of conflicts by way of cooperation. The EU could support ASEAN in many ways: By more exchange on the political level, and not only about trade questions, by a stronger political presence in the region, by an exchange of the EU’s ideas and experiences in the field of cooperation and integration and by using the possible external financing instruments to support the development of human rights and democracy in the region. In addition to that, the EU should also support the development of Japanese and Korean interests in a multilateral security architecture in the region.

In my view, stronger multilateralism in the region would benefit all countries concerned, would contribute to regional security and constitutes therefore a major European interest.

These remarks are obviously just a first sketch. The basic assumption, though, stands. The EU could and should contribute to building up a system of cooperation and multilateralism including a shared security architecture in this region – based on the principles of cooperation, mutual respect and respect for international law.

 

References

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