Perhaps it was the US “pivot” to Asia, perhaps the Eurozone crisis or possibly a much-belated recognition of the need for stronger Asia-Europe engagement?  Whatever the reason – or mix of reasons – European leaders have been spending some much-needed time and energy on improving their Asian connections.

Leading European officials EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign and security policy attended key Asian gatherings in 2012.  The EU also signed up to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, Southeast Asia’s peace blueprint.

The efforts are paying off.  There is heightened awareness of European-Asian economic interdependence; trade and investments are booming despite the Eurozone crisis and the global economic slowdown; after years of watching from the sidelines, the EU is becoming involved in Asia’s security discussions; there is recognition that tackling 21st Century challenges requires more forceful Asia-Europe cooperation.

Following progress in EU-Asia relations made in 2012, the time is ripe to take relations to a higher level.  This requires that both sides switch from a focus on visits, meetings and issuing statements and communiques to a more substantive and meaningful strategy for stronger mutual engagement.

The time for photo-opportunities is over.  Official visits – however welcome and needed – must be backed up by a fresh vision for a stronger, more sustainable EU-Asia strategic partnership which  underlines areas where the two regions can work together to meet the challenge of living together in a rapidly changing and very complex world.

The new blueprint need not be long or all-comprehensive. Asia is much too diverse and the challenges it faces are much too complex to lend itself to such an approach. Europe too is changing fast.

In the end, it’s simple: In an inter-dependent, globalised world where no one nation, bloc or region can claim to lead the rest, where security is about more than military spending and where nations’ are connected to each other by a dense web of trade and investments, Europe-Asia cooperation is the only option.

It’s not about whether Europeans have the time, energy or interest in Asia or whether Asians think Europe is still relevant.  It’s about the economy, moving beyond the Eurozone crisis and the challenge of ensuring sustained global growth.  It’s about dealing with climate change, pandemics, humanitarian disasters and poverty.  It’s also about preventing tensions and conflicts which can endanger global peace and security.

Here are a few suggestions for engineering a truly qualitative step forward in EU-Asia relations:

  • Move from an event-focused relationship to a partnership based on common concerns and tackling shared challenges.  This shift can be made within the Asia Europe Meetings (ASEM), in relations with ASEAN and on a bilateral level.  The agenda set for such meetings is often an endless laundry list of areas of cooperation.  These should be narrowed down to a smaller list of core issues which require joint reflection and action.  This should include (a) new global challenges such as climate change and urbanisation, (b) trade and economic questions, (c) politics and security, (d) regional integration initiatives and (e) people-to-people contacts.
  •  Use the ASEM network of 51 nations and organisations to advance discussions on the list of issues above and foster stronger personal contacts between European and Asian leaders and policymakers.  The fact that the next ASEM summit will be held in Brussels in autumn 2014 under Lisbon rules (ie the EU Council and the European External Action Service will set the agenda rather than an individual European government) provides a welcome opportunity for discussions to focus on EU-wide interests rather than narrower national priorities.
  • Continue to enhance ties with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).  The ambitious plan of action agreed at the EU-ASEAN ministerial meeting in 2013 is a good step forward in relations but needs to be accompanied by three important steps: the organisation of an EU-ASEAN summit, reflection on recognising ASEAN as a key strategic partner and the appointment of a special EU envoy to ASEAN. Such moves will not only give EU-ASEAN relations a stronger foundation but also signal the EU’s recognition of ASEAN’s “centrality” gin ensuring peace and stability in the Asia Pacific and leading regional integration initiatives.
  • Leverage economic and trade ties to forge an integrated strategy for EU-Asia relations.  Economics has long been the backbone of EU-Asia links and the EU has been pro-active in negotiating free trade agreements and investment treaties with leading Asian nations, including South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, India and Japan.  Business summits are also often held with many Asian countries, including with ASEAN.  These trade initiatives need to be made part of the EU’s overall Asia strategy.  This is especially important given that Asian nations are involved in an array of regional trade networks, including their own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) initiative and the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
  • Engage in security discussions. As it seeks to gain entry to the East Asia Summit, the EU should make sure that leading European policymakers participate in Asian security fora such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) but also the informal Shangrila Dialogue held every year in Singapore and ASEAN-linked security discussions.  Although there is no European military presence in Asia, the EU can make constructive contributions to the region’s security discussions in areas such as preventive diplomacy, conflict resolution and disaster management.
  • Move away from confrontational narratives.  EU-Asia relations have been complicated for far too long by a narrative of competition which paints a picture of the EU as reluctant to adapt to a rapidly changing world and uncertain and uneasy Europe in the face of a self-confident and assertive Asia.  The discussion has been useful in focusing Asian and European minds’ on the changing world order and spotlighting the need for stronger Asia-Europe understanding and engagement. But it is time to move on.   Asia-Europe relations in this new era must be based on partnership to deal with complex 21st Century challenges.  Europe in particular needs to change the tone and style of its inter-action with Asia.

In addition to seeking a stronger regional influence, the EU should of course continue apace with its diplomatic, trade and economic ties with individual Asian countries.   Stagnant South Asian regional integration in particular needs to be given a new lease of life.

EU policymakers like to say that 2012 was a “pivotal” year for relations with Asia.  One year is not enough, however.  The effort has to be sustained over the long-term.