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European Union policymakers seeking a seat for Europe at the East Asia Summit, the region’s leading security forum, should stop talking and start proving they are serious about stepping up political engagement with Asia.

Turning EU rhetoric into action can begin with three 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 decision by Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, not to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali, Indonesia on July 22-23 for a second year running is a serious diplomatic faux pas.

Asians see it as a snub and yet another signal that, apart from a focus on China, Europe is not really interested in the region. Britain and Germany are understandably not too pleased with Ashton’s decision either.

The fact that Ashton’s acting “deputy”, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, is also not going to the ARF makes things worse. The task of representing the EU at the ARF top table has apparently fallen to Elzbieta Bienkowska, Poland’s minister for regional development.

Protocol-conscious Asians are not amused. If the Baroness is too busy, say Asian diplomats, she could have asked the much-respected Kristalina Georgieva,EU Commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, affairs, to attend the ASEAN Forum.

True, the EU held its own Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) with Asian foreign ministers in Hungary in June. But by shying away from travel to Asia, Ashton and others are reinforcing the impression of EU neglect and indifference.

Correcting this perception will not be easy. As a result, Europe may have to wait a long time for that much-coveted seat at the East Asia Summit which, in addition to key regional players such as Japan and Australia, now also includes both the US and Russia.

Second, 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, is no substitute for 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 amore dynamic track. The conference “Europe and the Asian Century”, organised by Friends of Europe on June 21, highlighted several areas for future engagement between the two regions.

European institutions still tend to be wary of advice from “outsiders”. As a result, EU policy on Asia has failed to adapt to Asia’s changing political, economic and social landscape. Like the Americans, Europeans must engage more actively with independent think tanks working on Asia.

Third, like the Americans – and increasingly, the Russians – the EU should become an active partner in the increasingly important security discussions in Asia, including within ARF, the annual security-focused gathering of Asian foreign ministers and their key foreign partners.

As she did last year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is going to the ARF meeting and the other encounters organised around the Forum, including a preparatory meeting of the East Asia Summit which will be held in Bali on November 19, with President Barack Obama in attendance.

US officials make clear that Clinton makes a point of “showing up” at Asian gatherings to prove America’s “sustained commitment” to the region and to enhance its strategic engagement with Asian countries, especially ASEAN members.

The ARF agenda is impressive, including discussions on easing the ongoing border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand, tensions in the Korean Peninsula (with the reclusive North Korea making a rare appearance on the international stage by sending its Foreign Minister Pak Ui-Chun attends to the Bali meeting)and conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Missing meetings may appear trivial to a harried and rushed EU foreign policy chief who has to deal with myriad pressing issues, including some in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. But diplomacy is about travel, networking and trying to influence and shape policies and perceptions.

For too many years – with the exception of Javier Solana, the former EU high representative for foreign and security policy – EU commissioners and ministers have either stayed away from meetings with their Asian counterparts or put in a brief, formal appearance. Opportunities for dialogue and networking were missed. Personal relationships have not been nurtured.

Dealing with a changing and rising Asia will require that the EU engages in new courtships and new alliances. If the EU wants a seat at the East Asia Summit, senior European diplomats will have to learn to engage more actively and more constructively with rising Asia.

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