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EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s decision to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia’s premier multilateral security platform, is an important step forward in Europe’s quest for stronger engagement on security issues with Asia.

The EU has so far played up its economic credentials in Asia.  Certainly, Asians value Europe as the region’s second largest trading partner and the biggest investor.

That’s only part of the story, however.  As Asia faces up to a host of old and new tensions, it’s time Europe switched the focus from trade to security in its conversation with Asia.

Europeans have long believed – and many Asians have argued – that the absence of “hard” military power erodes Europe’s standing in Asia.  Europe’s “soft power” was viewed as inferior to American and Chinese “hard power”.

This was possibly true a decade ago.  But Asia’s remarkable rise in the 21st Century – and China’s rapid ascendance as the region’s dominant nation – has prompted a radical reassessment of the challenges facing the region.

The US “pivot” or rebalancing toward Asia responds to some of the region’s military concerns linked to China’s rise.

But military threats are not the only question on Asia’s new agenda.

Asian policymakers today are increasingly turning their attention to tackling non-traditional security issues, an area where the EU has acquired special skills and expertise.

Uneasy about the dangerous political and security fault lines that run across the region, many in Asia believe they can learn from Europe’s valuable experience in ensuring peace, easing tensions and handling conflicts.

Indonesia’s former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda, says the “Asian Century” must be about more than dynamic economic growth rates; rising Asia must also become a region of sustained peace and stability.

The point is also made strongly by Javier Solana, the EU’s former foreign and security policy chief.  As an “unfinished continent” where historical wounds have not fully healed and where reconciliation has not been achieved, Asia needs norms, rules and institutions which ensure peaceful co-existence, Solana wrote recently.

Having successfully reconciled once-warring parties, Europe has a “unique toolbox on offer”, Solana says.

The EU must, however, become better at projecting these special qualities and skills.

Ashton did point out at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore last month that the EU’s strength lies in its ability to work on a “comprehensive” approach which includes a wide range of tools and instruments – short and long-term, humanitarian and development, security and political – to tackle new challenges.

And she is right: this mix does certainly make Europe a “unique global partner for Asia on security issues.”

The message was delivered again at the ARF.  It needs to be repeated and articulated with more conviction, resonance – and empathy.  Asians want to learn from Europe’s successes in regional integration and institution-building.  They do not want to hear lectures about their weaknesses.

Stronger engagement on Asian security issues will require a deeper EU dialogue with ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – which is in the forefront of pan-Asian peace-building efforts.

It means regular participation in Asian meetings by European ministers and senior EU officials as well as constructive contributions to ways in which the ARF could move from its current focus on confidence-building to preventive diplomacy.

Proposals to organise a gathering of all signatories of the ASEAN Treaty on Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the security blueprint for the region which the EU signed last year can also be pursued.

The EU’s security interest in the region is not just about ensuring the safety of sea lanes and navigation in Asian waters.  Europe can help and inspire Asia as it seeks to ease historical enmities, build sustained peace and tackle non-traditional security challenges.

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