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As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rises along with the rest of Asia – in some cases notching up even stronger growth rates than Asia’s other booming economies – EU policymakers must step up engage with Asia’s oldest, but newly-re-energised, region-wide power.

The EU has provided technical help and expertise to ASEAN’s regional integration efforts for many decades. Trade, aid and investment relations between the two sides are booming. With a combined GDP of around US$700 billion and a market of more than 550 million people, ASEAN offers great economic opportunities for European business.

However, stronger business ties need to be buttressed by a supportive political environment. As such, Europeans must ensure their political and security relations keep pace with rapid changes in ASEAN and Southeast Asia’s growing global clout.

If the EU is serious about restoring its credibility and influence in Asia, it must look beyond relations with China and India and develop a new strategy for engaging with a re-vitalised and vibrant ASEAN. Failure to do so could mean being excluded from an array of exciting new multilateral initiatives on issues like climate change, immigration and food security. A lack of political engagement could also act as a brake on the further development of EU-ASEAN economic ties.

The 10-member ASEAN certainly has a new spring in its step. Growth rates are high, plans for ASEAN economic integration are picking up momentum, Timor Leste is set to become the newest member of the organisation and ASEAN is in the driver’s seat of an array of free trade and regional integration initiatives spanning the continent. G20 member Indonesia, as current chair of the organisation, is expected to give ASEAN an even stronger international profile.

Significant challenges remain, however. The Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat remains weak, cash-strapped and under-staffed. The organisation’s member states include a disparate mix of emerging economic giants and some of the world’s poorest nations as well as democracies, monarchies and authoritarian governments. ASEAN experts warn of a “democratic recession” in the region, pointing out that even Indonesia, the world’s third biggest democracy after India and the United States, is “flawed”. Border disputes such as the recent flare-up between Cambodia and Thailand pose a serious challenge to ASEAN’s credentials as peace-maker.

After a slow start, the pace of ASEAN regional integration is picking up. The six major ASEAN countries (comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand) have rebounded from the global economic crisis. The region stands determinedly at the centre of a host of ambitious pan-Asian trade and political networks, emerging as a strong third pillar in a region dominated by new economic powerhouses China and India.

Expectations are high as regards Indonesia’s current chairmanship of the organisation. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has said he intends to focus on making progress toward the fulfilment of the ASEAN Community, establishing a “dynamic equilibrium” between ASEAN and the world’s major powers and increasing ASEAN’s role in the global community of nations.

As ASEAN’s oldest Dialogue Partner, the EU has provided help and expertise to ASEAN’s regional integration efforts. The EU-ASEAN relationship has, however, turned lacklustre with time; today it is in dire need of a new lease of life.

The first ever ASEAN-EU Business Summit to be held in Jakarta in early May could provide some of the much-needed impetus. Bilateral economic and trade agreements that the EU is seeking to negotiate with Singapore and Malaysia as well as the Philippines, Vietnam and possibly Brunei, will also help boost relations. But such initiatives are not enough. The EU needs to take a leaf from the US foreign policy book by taking its engagement with ASEAN to a higher level.

Giving more impetus to EU-ASEAN relations will require a fresh look at the region, a focus on security and political issues of interest to ASEAN as well as initiatives such as visa-free travel for business leaders. Once the current EU review of strategic partnerships is complete, policymakers should consider making ASEAN a strategic partner, on a par with China and India.

Interestingly, not unlike the EU, ASEAN is entangled in a debate on whether to widen or deepen its membership. ASEAN also faces a tough balancing act in its relationship with China. Traditionally ASEAN’s closest ally, the US under the Obama Administration has become an even stronger guarantor of the region’s security. Australia and Japan are drawing ever closer to ASEAN.

As Europe struggles to rebuild its economy, it needs to trade and investment more in one of the world’s most dynamic regions. It cannot afford to remain on the periphery of ASEAN’s expanding ring of friends.

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