IT was a coincidence of course. But as US President Donald Trump was touring Asia last week, romancing the region’s strongmen, the European Union launched a “new era in defence cooperation”, with 23 countries agreeing to “a programme of joint military investment and project development”.
So is America still a major Asia power, ready and willing to counter a self -confident and assertive China? And as it watches the US president’s erratic global engagement and possibly declining commitment to Europe’s security, is the EU finally building an independent defence and security union?
Neither development should be taken at face value. Trump has hailed his Asia trip as an “epic” and a great success. But for many in Europe and Asia, the tour only helped to showcase an America that is retreating from the global stage.
And while EU efforts at building up defence cooperation have certainly picked up pace following Trump’s arrival in the White House — and the impending British departure from the EU — Europe’s focus is on defence coordination, efficiency and avoiding duplication rather than setting up a rival to Nato.
According to Trump, his Asian tour was a great success. “We made a lot of progress just in terms of relationship,” he said, adding: “China has been excellent. Japan and South Korea have been excellent…it was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received. And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country.”
The US president certainly cosied up to the region’s tough guys, including Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Officials said the president was concerned about the mass exodus and killings of Rohingya Muslims in majority-Buddhist Myanmar, but he did not focus on the issue.
There was a tough speech on North Korea but no mention of human rights in either China or the Philippines. Trade commitments under the TransPacific Partnership were torn up and while the term “Indo-Pacific” was used repeatedly, apparently signalling a new-ish US policy, towards the region, no attempt was made to articulate how it was going to be different from the old “Asian pivot”.
Most alarmingly for many, Trump accepted President Putin’s assurances that Russia had not meddled in the 2016 US presidential election — disregarding the conclusion of US intelligence agencies. And then he left the Philippines without attending the East Asia Summit, the region’s prime security forum which includes Asia’s leading powers.
While Trump is convinced he’s now loved and admired in Asia, analysts in the region — and outside it — are confused and disenchanted. The trip signalled the decline of US power in the region, according to some. German commentators called it America’s “farewell” to Asia.
Interestingly, while Trump toured the region, the EU Council President Donald Tusk made his debut at the East Asia Summit in Manila, marking a first for the bloc which has long aspired to join the prestigious forum.
The EU’s message to Asia was simple, said Tusk. “Europe needs Asia, and Asia needs Europe. Not only as trading partners, but as friends and allies in a world where the geo-political realities are changing fast, and where global threats and challenges endanger Asians and Europeans alike.”
This time, the EU representative could also talk proudly of Europe’s own efforts at building it’s security architecture following a decision by EU governments to launch a programme of joint military investment and project development aimed at helping the EU confront its security challenges.
Twenty-three of the EU’s 28 member nations have signed up to the process, known as permanent structured cooperation, or Pesco. Britain, which is leaving the EU in 2019, and Denmark with a defence opt-out are among those not taking part.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has described the decision as a “historic moment in European defence”, adding that “23 member states engaging booth on capabilities and on operational steps is something big”. Those who didn’t sign up can join later.
The EU move is no surprise — defence cooperation has been moving up the bloc’s agenda for some time now. But it’s no secret that geopolitical uncertainties triggered by Trump and new security challenges including tense relations with Russia have given a new urgency and sense of purpose to efforts to establish a European defence capability outside Nato.
Significantly, after years of working in parallel, the EU and Nato are beginning to work together at the political level — and in practice. Also, defence cooperation is part of the drive for revitalising EU cooperation.
So what happens next? I’m betting on closer Europe-Asia relations in the coming years, modest beginnings of Europe as a hard security power and an Asia that finally and painfully begins to cut itself loose from the US.
He’s right: President Trump is truly changing the world.