Remember the excitement triggered by America’s much-publicised “pivot to Asia” almost six years ago? There was heady talk of Asia’s rise and the need for stronger US engagement with the region. Most Asians were reassured, China was irritated, knowing that the new policy was about its “containment”, and Europeans fretted that Washington was seeking out new friends while forgetting old ones.
Fast forward to 2017 and little remains of the US pivot or “rebalancing” as it was quickly rebranded. True, US President Donald Trump is preparing to embark on a long tour of the region, starting on November 5 with visits planned to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Washington’s message is clear: America still loves Asia. But Asians know better.
With his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, dire warnings of war against “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un of North Korea, retreat from the climate change accords and decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact on trade (TPP), the 45th US President is unpredictable, volatile and potentially dangerous. Little surprise then that Asia’s attention has turned more firmly on Europe – and not just as a trading partner.
After years of hesitation and much hand-wringing, ASEAN has finally invited the European Union to the 12th East Asia Summit (EAS) in Manila on November 13-14. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, will be attending this influential Asian security forum as a guest of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is current ASEAN chair. The US and Russia became EAS members in 2011, bringing the forum’s membership to eighteen and prompting the EU to demand similar treatment.
The EU is in the process of reviewing relations with several Asian nations
Many Asian countries are still reflecting on the EU’s request. Given the uncertain global climate and Europe’s commitment to a rules-based and open global order, ASEAN would be wise to make the invitation to the EU a permanent one. For its part, Europe should use the opportunity to further its increasingly strong case for an enhanced security conversation with Asia while also pursuing ongoing efforts to expand trade and political contacts, as well as discussions on an array of global challenges, including improved economic governance, climate change, illegal immigration, and implementing the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development goals.
The EU is in the process of reviewing relations with several Asian nations. Having spent millions of euros on Afghanistan’s development, the EU’s new strategy demands that Kabul shows tangible progress in areas of democracy, human rights and women’s empowerment. State-building is given priority, as is the importance of a more effective and responsive police force.
Sanctions against North Korea have been tightened by imposing a total ban on EU investments and the sale of refined petroleum products to the country. After an initial, disappointingly low-key, response to the brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military on the country’s Rohingya population, the EU has scaled back relations with the country’s military and insists that human rights violations must be thoroughly investigated.
Meanwhile, the recent EU-India summit sets relations with Delhi on a much-needed beyond-trade trajectory, with leaders from both sides agreeing on a long joint statement which promises cooperation on a vast panoply of sectors, including counter-terrorism.
Interestingly, a first-ever EU-Japan free trade agreement is expected to be ready for signature in the coming months and EU relations with South Korea are moving into exciting new areas, including security cooperation. Relations with ASEAN are on track despite difficulties in bilateral ties with the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar.
To complete the upbeat picture, the EU needs to step up its engagement with China. Much is being made of President Xi Jinping’s increased power, authority and status and his ambition to turn China into a leading global power by 2050. Xi’s three-hour speech last week to the 19th Party Congress outlined his vision of a country that would stand at the “centre of the world stage”, with a strong Communist Party and a military ready to take on any challenge. China, he said, had entered a “new era”.
Instead of watching from the sidelines, Europe must become a more active and engaged partner in Beijing’s game-changing Belt and Road Initiative
At a time of global anxieties and uncertainties provoked by Trump’s words and actions and when protectionism and inward looking policies are gaining momentum across the world, Xi’s commitment to staying open and engaged in a “shared world” should reassure Europe and inject new energy into an erratic and irritant-prone relationship.
Certainly, the Chinese leader will have to turn these public pronouncements into real action. His record on walking the talk – namely translating the pro-globalisation speech he made in Davos at the start of the year into market-opening measures – has not been impressive so far. European businesses continue to complain of market access and investment restrictions.
In the months ahead, both sides should try harder to make their relationship more robust, resilient and truly strategic. China needs to open up to European investments, technology, and know-how if it is to reach the economic heights Xi has outlined. In return, instead of watching from the sidelines, Europe must become a more active and engaged partner in Beijing’s game-changing Belt and Road Initiative. This means working together with EU member states but also better coordination among EU institutions.
America, with its military presence in the region, looms large over the Asian landscape. Trump can count on a warm welcome and full honours as he tours Asia early next month. But not everyone in the region is comfortable with the US leader’s politics of fear and confrontation, and see Europe as an increasingly attractive partner. The EU pivot to Asia must therefore be sustained, enhanced and reinforced.