America’s focus on the Asia-Pacific appears to have acted as a much-needed wake-up call for the European Union. Over the coming months, EU policymakers are expected to take a closer look at Europe’s relations with Asia and hopefully come up with a new blueprint for invigorating flagging Europe-Asia ties.
There is much to be done. Having failed to forge real “strategic partnerships” with the region’s rising powers, the 27-nation EU has long-focused on a limited trade-only agenda with most Asian nations. Trade and economic ties do certainly bind and foster inter-dependence. But the economic link has not resulted in stronger Europe-Asia political relations or joint action to tackle key 21st Century challenges.
EU-Asia security links are practically non-existent. After a successful peace monitoring mission in Aceh in 2005-2006, the EU has steered clear of any security-related initiatives in Asia. Recently, Asian and European countries have cooperated in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia action in Asia. But this is of course eclipsed by the US military presence in Asia – and President Barack Obama’s recent decision to send more troops to Australia.
The US clearly believes this is the “Asia Pacific Century”. During his nine-day sweep through the region, President Obama hosted an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hawaii, went to Australia, took up America’s seat at the East Asia Summit in Bali and sent tough signals to China in its backyard. He also dispatched US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma on a breakthrough mission to assess moves towards democracy in the country.
Countries in the region are eager for America’s presence and influence, often as a counter to China. The US President stressed in a speech to the Australian parliament that the troop buildup was not aimed at China. China’s defense ministry has warned, however, that plans to build up a U.S. military presence in Australia are a continuation of “Cold War thinking” that could destabilize the Asia-Pacific region.
Certainly, no European leader can create the same buzz in Asia as the US President. The problem is that most Europeans do not even try.
True, the EU has long talked of building strong strategic relations with Asia’s emerging powers. But the rhetoric remains just that: EU ties with China, India, Indonesia and the region’s other rising nations remain lackluster and uninspiring. EU and Asian leaders meet for high-level summits, ministerial encounters and issue wordy communiques. But handshakes and photo opportunities are no substitute for policy and strategic thinking.
In dealing with ascending Asia, the EU would be well advised to take a page or two from the US strategy towards the region. America’s renewed commitment to the Asia-Pacific offers Europe an opportunity to learn from – and possibly participate in – what is certain to become a vibrant transpacific partnership.
Competition with the US for influence and visibility in Asia has long driven EU policy in the region. EU leaders launched ASEM (Asia Europe Meeting) as a platform for dialogue with Asian countries in 1996, largely as a response to APEC. EU policymakers often gauge their success or failure in Asia by comparing European trade or business flows with America’s economic presence in the region.
And since the US – and Russia – participated in the latest East Asia Summit, the EU is stepping up pressure on Asian governments to be given entry into the influential club.
A new transpacific alliance could therefore provide the spur Europe needs to get its own act together in Asia.
Dealing with a changing and rising Asia will require that the EU engages in new courtships and new alliances with countries in the region.
However, European policymakers have not been as good at doing their homework on Asia as their American counterparts. Even as Hillary Clinton promises substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region in the coming years, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, has yet to set out a convincing blueprint for relations with Asia.
In fact, apart from trips to China, Ashton is a rare visitor to the rest of the continent. Her decision to stay away from the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali, Indonesia in July this year, for a second year running, was a serious diplomatic faux pas.
Asians saw Ashton’s absence from ARF as a snub and yet another signal that, apart from a focus on China, Europe is not really interested in the region. Many Asian analysts warn that Europe is becoming increasing irrelevant in Asia. And they insist that if Europeans are serious about joining the EAS, they should stop talking and – like the Americans – start proving they are serious about stepping up political engagement with Asia.
Turning EU rhetoric into action can begin with four easy steps:
For starters, senior EU officials can stop playing hard-to-get and start attending key Asian meetings taking place in the region.
The European External Action Service should hammer out a revamped, up-to-date agenda for EU-Asia cooperation which goes beyond trade and business. EU negotiations on free trade agreements with Asian countries are a positive step forward in helping to enhance economic ties. But trade policy, however active, cannot replace foreign policy.
EU policymakers need to engage in some serious reflection, based on input from independent researchers, think tanks, academics, business leaders and other non-state actors, from both Europe and Asia, on how to get Europe-Asia ties on a more dynamic track. Like the Americans, Europeans must engage more actively with independent think tanks working on Asia.
Again, like the Americans, the EU should become an active partner in the increasingly important security discussions in Asia, including within ARF and other fora.
Once it has stepped up engagement with Asian countries, the EU will be in a position to make a credible bid to join a transpacific dialogue. After all, Europe’s cooperation is essential in tackling today’s global challenges.