Asia remains high on the European Union’s foreign and security policy agenda following the meeting of foreign ministers from the EU and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations[1]) in Brussels on July 23.

In August, security discussions dominated EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s participation in the influential ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.  And mid-October, European and Asian leaders will gather in Milan for summit talks on injecting new life and momentum into their 18-year old ASEM (Asia Europe Meetings) partnership. (read more)

Asia and Europe have worked hard to maintain momentum in their relations despite pressing – and difficult – domestic and regional concerns.  Such endeavours are to their credit.  However, the challenge facing participants at both the upcoming ASEAN and ASEM meetings is to build more trust and understanding – and take their relationship to a higher, more strategic level.

Discussions at the EU-ASEAN meeting focused on an array of global and regional issues. But more importantly, both sides have specific long-standing demands which are likely to be raised.

A “win-win” deal?

For the EU, membership of the East Asia Summit (EAS) remains an important strategic goal.  The 18-member forum which discusses security and development includes the ten-member ASEAN as well as the United States, Russia, India and others.  ASEAN’s reaction so far to EU membership of the East Asia Summit has varied from lukewarm to hostile, however.

ASEAN, meanwhile, is looking for an EU upgrade to status of “strategic partner”, the appointment of a special EU envoy accredited to the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat and the regular convening of EU-ASEAN summits.  While not opposed to either of these points, the EU has put ASEAN demands on hold.

No breakthrough was expected at the meeting in Brussels. But if both sides play their cards correctly by engaging in innovative and creative diplomacy, the meeting could pave the way – further down the line – for a “win-win” deal on the EU’s entry into the EAS and the elevation of ASEAN to one of Europe’s “strategic partners”.

As expected meanwhile, with the end-2015 deadline approaching for establishing a border-free ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), demands for the revival of the once-abandoned effort to negotiate an EU-ASEAN free trade deal have resurfaced. EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht has said such a pact could be negotiated once the AEC is in place. (read more)

Certainly an EU-ASEAN FTA could increase Europe’s visibility in a landscape crowded by multiple Asian free trade initiatives including the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) linking ASEAN to all leading economies in the region.

Domestic challenges

Keeping Asia-Europe engagement on track has not been easy for either region. The EU still faces the over-arching challenge of consolidating a still-slow economic recovery, creating jobs, especially for young people, and deciding on the distribution of key EU posts, including the appointment of the next high-representative for foreign and security policy. Hammering out a coherent strategy vis a vis a more assertive and often-unpredictable Russia remains a challenge.  The EU is also still struggling to understand and respond to the continuing chaos and conflict in its southern neighbourhood.

In Asia, meanwhile, conflicting territorial claims in the East China and South China Seas continue to strain relations between China and many of its neighbours and also challenge ASEAN’s claim to play a central role in the region.  In addition, ASEAN is grappling with a military coup in Thailand, ethnic violence in Myanmar amid preparations for next year’s presidential elections and the year-long political crisis over disputed election results in Cambodia.  While Jakarta mayor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is clearly the winner in Indonesia’s presidential elections, competing claims of victory by rival Prabowo Subianto have created unnecessary political confusion in Southeast Asia’s most populous nation and most robust democracy.

On the economic front, the Asian Development Bank has cut its initial growth outlook for the region from 5 percent to 4.7 percent even as the region struggles to tackle problems posed by urbanisation, climate change and unequal development.

Growing connectivity

The EU has emerged as an important partner in implementing the Master Plan on Connectivity adopted by ASEAN leaders in October 2010 (read more). The plan, which includes the forging of physical, institutional and people-to-people links, is discussed in the EU-ASEAN Dialogue on Connectivity.  The first such dialogue was held in Brussels earlier this year.

Ashton’s participation in the ARF meeting in Napydaw ensures a much-needed, stronger EU-ASEAN dialogue on increasingly complex security issues. In a marked change over past years, there is already recognition of the need for a stronger EU-ASEAN conversation on security, including on non-traditional security threats including climate change, poverty alleviation, pandemics and illegal immigration.

With 50% of world trade in tonnage passing through the South China Sea, the EU has taken a lead in establishing an EU-ASEAN high-level dialogue on maritime security, with a focus on port security, maritime surveillance, and the joint management of resources including fisheries and oil and gas.

Significantly, while they once stayed carefully out of key Asian security disputes, EU countries with other Group of Seven leaders have expressed concern over tensions between China and some other Asian countries in the East and South China Seas, warned against any use of force and urged all parties to clarify and pursue their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law.

Deeper trust

While much binds the two regions, upgrading EU-ASEAN ties requires deeper trust and understanding between the two sides. Encouragingly the earlier acrimony over participation and attendance at meetings is now buried.  Yet like ASEM gatherings, ASEAN meetings must become more inter-active and less formal and ritualistic. The focus on agenda items, prepared statements and out-dated rhetoric needs to be replaced by more open, frank and critical albeit constructive exchanges.

Both sides have much to discuss and share.  They should be allowed to do so – even on difficult issues such as the military coup in Thailand, the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar or tensions in the South China Seas – without taking offense or engaging in an overzealous regard for diplomatic niceties.

ASEAN and the EU have been talking to and working with each other for several decades – but the last three years have been especially important in binding the two regions together.  The Brunei Plan of Action adopted in 2012 laid the groundwork for a further intensification of EU-ASEAN ties. The meeting in Brussels should give added traction to EU-ASEAN engagement by preparing for a qualitative upgrade of relations within two to three years.

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