Relations between Asia and the European Union have too long been complicated by a narrative of competition – and a history of mistrust. Many in both Asia and Europe cling to the out-dated black-and-white view that the rise of Asia inevitably means the decline of Europe. It’s a vision where Europeans refuse to adjust to Asia’s economic power, and still seek to create a world in their own image.
European politicians and policymakers have done little to correct the impression of an EU that is reluctant to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Many of them stoke fears of globalisation and Asia’s growing economic and political clout. They reinforce the image of an uncertain and uneasy Europe faced with a self-confident and assertive Asia.
In Asia too, many influential women and men believe that the EU as an established status quo power is unwilling to adjust to Asia’s rise. Others warned that Europe is becoming “irrelevant” as Asia becomes more influential and powerful.
This discussion is important and intellectually stimulating. It 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.
The simplistic narrative of Asia versus Europe, of winner-takes-all, and of one region being “better” than the other, has far outlived its usefulness and needs to change. In an increasingly 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 co-operation has become 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 economic growth, 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 that endanger global peace and security.
For all their criticism of Europe – and despite the eurozone crisis – even the fiercest Asian commentators recognise that Asians can learn much from Europe. Asians have never liked European “arrogance” in lecturing and hectoring them on their perceived deficits and weaknesses. But they admire much that is European, including European technology, products and culture. To keep growing, Asians need European markets and investments.
Asia-Europe relations in this new era cannot be dominated by a narrative of rivalry and competition. The focus has to be on partnership to deal with complex 21st Century challenges.
Clearly, the EU must make room in the Bretton Woods Institutions for Asia’s rising powers. Pressure from Asia for such changes could help speed-up a decision on the EU having a single seat in these fora – and perhaps even in the United Nations Security Council.
Europeans may no longer set the global agenda, but the “European values” they espouse are really universal norms and freedoms which have been adopted by all UN members. The EU can be less aggressive in promoting them, but should not abandon them
It is true that Europeans should steer clear of any prescriptive approach to the way the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should evolve. It and its 10 members have a distinctive approach to integration; 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 it can inspire and help ASEAN on its future trajectory.
Although there is no European military presence in Asia, the EU can make a constructive contribution to the region’s security discussions in areas such as preventive diplomacy, conflict resolution and disaster management. The sparring over Asia’s rise and Europe’s fall must give way to a less confrontational approach based on partnership and co-operation.