Perhaps it’s down to global uncertainties sparked by US President Donald Trump’s volatile policies. Perhaps it’s the result of the European Union’s new Brexit-inspired sense of urgency and purpose. Or perhaps George Gershwin is right – and summertime just makes living easy. Whatever the reasons, Asia and Europe are finally starting a serious and strategic conversation on shared global challenges.
Europeans were active participants at the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing earlier this month. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini will attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum and celebrations of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary in Manila in August. European and Asian senior officials are meeting in June in Brussels ahead of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) foreign ministers encounter in Myanmar in November. There will be a gathering of ASEM economic ministers in Seoul in September, the first such meeting in many years.
It’s not just the frequency of these and other encounters that is significant. Meetings between Asian and European leaders, ministers, policymakers and business representatives take place often enough. But they have habitually been much too formal, and in some cases little more than photo opportunities.
Although important challenges still lie ahead – and regretfully EU relations with India and Pakistan have yet to truly take off – Asia and Europe are slowly but surely expanding the scope and deepening the substance of their conversation.
“Maintaining the new momentum in Europe’s ties with Asia’s leading nations will continue to require hard work, clear-headed strategic thinking and a spirit of compromise”
Significantly, the EU’s Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, is working hard to get trade deals finalised with Japan and several ASEAN countries. Talks on a region-to-region free trade agreement with ASEAN look set to be revived.
Trump’s lack of commitment on issues such as global security, trade and climate change is one key reason for closer dialogue and contact between Asia and Europe which equally depend on and defend the rules-based multilateral global order.
The increasingly volatile international outlook also certainly demands stronger Asia-Europe cooperation. Whether it’s North Korea’s erratic nuclear conduct or violence in Syria, Asians and Europeans are equally concerned by the worsening global security situation and its impact on their own stability.
Refugees, terrorism and violent extremism, as well as cybersecurity threats, test both Asia and Europe. Tensions in the South China Sea worry Europe, which depends on those sea lanes for a large percentage of its trade.
Asians are concerned about the impact of Brexit on their investments in Britain and their economic ties with the EU-27. Both regions face the challenges posed by populists, rising inequalities, and meeting the aspirations of young people for jobs and a better life amid rapid technological transformations. Human rights in many Asian countries continue to be a source of major concern.
As illustrated by their interest in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ASEAN Connectivity Master Plan and similar discussions within ASEM, both Asia and Europe give priority to forging stronger links between countries and regions, encompassing infrastructure, digital networks and people-to-people ties.
This new EU-Asia relationship is evident in four recent developments.
“Future relations would get a boost if there is a quick ASEAN decision to open the doors of the East Asia Summit to the EU”
First, compelling new global realities are giving a new lease of life to ASEM. With its informal format and flexible structure, this forum offers a unique platform for an open, no-holds-barred brainstorm on all issues of mutual interest.
Second, EU relations with ASEAN are also advancing, as shown by Mogherini’s trip to Manila. Future relations would get a boost if there is a quick ASEAN decision to open the doors of the East Asia Summit to the EU.
Third, although trade relations between Beijing and Brussels remain strained, the BRI has the potential to spark a more ambitious and truly strategic EU-China conversation on crucial issues of global peace, security and economic governance. As EU leaders prepare to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for the 19th EU-China Summit in Brussels on 1-2 June, the EU should widen its view of BRI, seeing it as not merely as an economic ‘project’ but as a reflection of Beijing’s ambitious vision of its role in a rapidly-transforming world.
And fourth, EU-Japan relations look set for an enormous geo-economic boost following the imminent conclusion of an ambitious comprehensive economic partnership agreement.
Maintaining the new momentum in Europe’s ties with Asia’s leading nations will continue to require hard work, clear-headed strategic thinking and a spirit of compromise. Expectations will also have to be managed.
So let’s enjoy the summer and warmer EU-Asia ties – but make these relationships resilient enough to face possible storms and cold weather ahead.