The EU as an Asian partner

Author: Jonas Parello-Plesner, ECFR

For Europeans, Asia represents spectacular growth and economic opportunity. But there is another side of the coin too.

Some aspects of current-day Asia are reminiscent of pre-WWI Europe: the complex alliance system, competitive nationalism and overlapping territorial disputes. Even a democratic, pacific country such as Japan has outstanding border issues with Russia, Korea and China. The Asian region is also the first geographical theatre where the complex game of cooperation and competition between the US and China is playing out. In a worst-case scenario, Asia’s future could come to resemble Europe’s past.

Moreover, Asia is afflicted by a series of distinctly 21st century security problems, including water scarcity, climate change, transnational environmental degradation, shared security of shipping lanes, border-crossing disasters and pandemics. And then there’s the matter of unresolved poverty: despite its astounding economic success, Asia is home to the world’s largest number of poor people. Asia’s acutest security problems cannot be easily solved through traditional military means, and require subtler tools in areas where the EU is strong.

Northeast Asia represents 27 per cent of the EU’s trade flows, which goes to show that what happens in Asia matters a great deal to the EU. For this reason, the EU should engage much more in Asian security. This way Europe would contribute its share both to Asia’s enduring economic dynamism and to security issues and conflict management.

This month, the EU’s representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, concluded talks with Chinese foreign policy leadership. She then participated in the largest Asian security forum, the ASEAN regional forum (ARF) in Phnom Penh. During the ARF, Ashton and Hillary Clinton discussed enhanced cooperation on approaches to Asian security.

The EU and US share values, also in Asia but the EU is an Asian partner in its own right, and should not be perceived as a junior companion undertaking a belated mini-pivot. The EU should have its own distinctive stance on matters of security because it can interact differently with the region. Unlike the US, the EU has no military presence in Asia, so its agenda is not seen to be driven by great power politics.

For example, US attempts to develop a regional trade initiative (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) have been quickly merged with US–China power politics, and some go as far as seeing it as a containment strategy. On the other hand, the EU has already signed free trade agreements with Korea and is likely to sign new agreements with India and Singapore in the not-too-distant future. Negotiations with other ASEAN countries and Japan are likely to follow. All of this suggests that the EU can develop a trade approach without being perceived as engaging in containment.

Likewise, the EU has a role to play in non-traditional security threats such as water scarcity, which is likely to become one of Asia’s key challenges in decades to come. Ashton stays on in Cambodia following the ARF to engage with Mekong river rights groups. The EU’s experience running development aid programs — the EU is still the world’s largest donor — should assist in determining transnational water rights.

Europe used to be the navel of the world and European politics was synonymous with world politics. But the world is changing, and as Asian politics increasingly become world politics, what happens in the South China Sea is no longer a minor regional matter. For this reason, the EU should insist on the need for a solution based on international law. The EU need not take sides: it could act as an international broker, as it has in relation to peace in the Middle East. Going beyond bland declarations that ‘all sides show restraint’ will mean going beyond the EU’s current comfort zone on Asian security issues. Increased engagement will inevitably lead to setbacks and reactions from partners, and Europeans should be ready for this possible outcome.

The EU should also start engaging more closely with ASEAN. In the wake of the euro crisis and now that Burma is no longer the only topic on the agenda, the EU should be ready for a more equal cooperation. And given ASEAN’s ambition to set up a common market by 2015, it stands to benefit from the EU’s practical experience.

The EU’s next mission, beyond surviving the euro crisis, is to become a global player. Security in Asia will be the definitive test as to whether the EU is ready for such a role.

Jonas Parello-Plesner is Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He has worked as a senior advisor with the Danish government on Asian affairs. He is on the board of editors of the Danish magazine Raeson.

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