Relations between the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are finally picking up much-needed momentum.

Recent talks held in Ho Chi Minh City between EU and ASEAN senior officials appear to have made important headway in implementing a new agenda for cooperation, with both sides seeking ways to take the relationship to a higher and more strategic level.

The switch from recrimination over issues like Myanmar and human rights to serious consultation on non-traditional security challenges and other questions is indeed welcome.  It is time the EU took relations with ASEAN as seriously as other global players, including the United States.

The progress made in Vietnam now needs to be followed up urgently by efforts to improve the structure of EU-ASEAN cooperation, inject more ambitious content and change the tone and style of the relationship.

A changing relationship

Much has changed in Europe and in Southeast Asia since the signature of the EU-ASEAN cooperation agreement in March 1980.

The last 33 years have seen a massive change in the contour, ambitions and role of the European Union. ASEAN has also undergone deep transformation through the adoption of the ASEAN charter, expansion of the club to include new members and a renewed drive for strengthened economic integration.

Both the EU and ASEAN have succeeded in bringing peace to their regions.  Both have worked for economic prosperity and both have to deal with the challenge of big and difficult neighbours.

Increasingly, both face a similar uphill task in ensuring their relevance, influence and importance in the 21st Century.

ASEAN has to affirm its centrality in a rapidly changing region which includes an increasingly assertive China.  It is also struggling to maintain its unity in the face of Beijing.

Europe is still battling with the currency crisis, massive unemployment and has to adapt to living in a world where the power has shifted from the West to Asia. When it comes to China – or Russia – the EU is still struggling to speak with one voice.

The EU-ASEAN relationship today is also very different from what it was all those years ago – reflecting the changes in both organisations.

The challenge facing both sides is to take their relationship into the future – into the 21st Century.  This can be done through changes in three key areas: E-ASEAN structures, content and tone:

Structures: 

2012 saw several significant improvements in EU-ASEAN relations: the EU acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, ASEAN’s core document for ensuring peace and stability in the region.

A recent meeting of EU-ASEAN foreign ministers in Brunei pledged to further improve bilateral ties between the two regions by adopting a Plan of Action.

Significantly also, Baroness Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, attended the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh in July after a much-remarked two-year absence.

In addition, the EU decision to lift sanctions against Myanmar, giving a boost to relations with ASEAN.

However, more needs to be done to further broaden, deepen and strengthen the current level of EU-ASEAN engagement.  It is important that the momentum achieved in the last year is not lost.

The EU and ASEAN need to recognise each other as strategic partners. It is quite surprising that this has not been done given the importance of the economic relationship and shared regional integration goals.

This will necessarily mean the organization of regular summits between EU and ASEAN leaders – although these gatherings need not be annual.  They could be held back-to-back with the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM)  which is organised every two years.

The EU should appoint a special ambassador in Jakarta with sole responsibility for relations with ASEAN to ensure implementation of the ambitious Plan of Action on EU-ASEAN relations adopted last year in Brunei.

The head of such an EU delegation would have the task of overseeing EU-ASEAN relations, establishing contacts with the ASEAN Committee of Permanent Representatives and other important ASEAN officials.  This is already being done by the US, China and Japan which have appointed special ambassadors to deal with ASEAN.  Australia is in the process of sending its own ASEAN envoy to Jakarta.

If EU-ASEAN relations are to be brought to a “higher level” within the context of a global power shift to Asia-Pacific and regional security dynamics, the management of ASEAN-EU relations needs to be a full-time job.

The conclusion of an EU-ASEAN free trade agreement would also boost the relationship.  Although this is unlikely to be possible in the short-term, it should remain a medium-term goal for both sides.

The EU has already concluded a free trade deal with Singapore and is negotiating with Thailand.  These and others in the pipeline should become building blocks for a region-to-region accord once the ASEAN economic community takes more concrete form as of 2016.

Increase ASEAN visibility 

ASEAN also needs to enhance its visibility in Europe.  Very little is known about the organization, its ambitions and achievements in Europe.   Public support for stronger EU-ASEAN ties can only be built up if there is wider media coverage and discussions in universities and in think tanks about the subject.

Content:

Trade and economic issues will remain the backbone of the relationship, with both sides also working on expanding their investment flows.  Sharing best practice on regional integration also continues to be important in view of ASEAN’s enhanced regional ambitions and the need to build ASEAN capacity in an increased number of areas.

The EU can provide lessons in building connectivity – especially as regards institutions and people, students, academics, scientists. Discussions on human rights – once a taboo question for ASEAN countries – are gaining momentum as attitudes change in ASEAN.

EU special envoy for human rights Stavros Lambrinidis was recently in Jakarta for talks with the ASEAN Inter Governmental Human Rights Commission (AICHR), the first such encounter between the two sides.

Lambrinidis also met with the ASEAN Committee of Permanent Representatives to ASEAN, as well as other ASEAN stakeholders, including regional civil society organisations.

In a break with past practice of lecturing ASEAN on human rights deficiencies, the EU envoy underlined that the basis of EU-ASEAN cooperation would be based on “mutual inspiration”.

Meanwhile, EU development cooperation and humanitarian aid programmes remain crucially important for the poorer ASEAN countries, including Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

The EU will never be a military power in the Asia-Pacific. But as ASEAN forges full speed ahead with constructing a region-wide security architecture, the EU needs to define how best it can contribute to regional peace in the Asia-Pacific.

The focus should be on non-traditional security, confidence building measures and possibly joint exploitation of the resources in the South China Seas.

Maritime security, disaster Resilience, conflict prevention and crisis management as well as peace-building are other subjects where the EU has know-how and experience as are challenges related to health, terrorism, cyber security, climate change and the environment.

These moves – many of which are already being explored – would have the added advantage of helping beef up the case for EU membership of the East Asia Summit.

Finally, the EU must move to ease travel restrictions in place for ASEAN citizens and encourage youth exchanges and the establishment of study centers in European and Asian universities that focus on the relationship between Asia-Pacific and Europe.

Tone and Style:

Relations between ASEAN and the European Union have too long been complicated by a narrative of competition – and a history of mistrust.

ASEAN has never liked European “arrogance” in lecturing and hectoring them on their perceived deficits and weaknesses. But people in the region admire much that is European, including European technology, products and culture. To keep growing, both sides need each other’s markets and investments.

Europeans should steer clear of any prescriptive approach to the way the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should evolve.

ASEAN decision-making is slow, messy and the organisation is currently divided over how best to deal with China. But this is no different from intra-EU debates on the future of the Union and Europe’s own failure to speak with one voice on China.

The EU cannot expect imitation, but – despite the current economic crisis –  it can inspire and help ASEAN on its future trajectory.

The EU and ASEAN have made a good start in reviewing their relationship and seeking fresh avenues for cooperation. The meeting in Vietnam appears to have been constructive and positive. The effort must be maintained in the months ahead so that both sides can work more closely together to tackle complex 21st Century challenges.

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