The just-negotiated ceasefire to stem the conflict in eastern Ukraine may or may not last. But the hard work put in by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French leader Francois Hollande as they negotiated for over 18 hours with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin points to the still-potent and constructive security role that European states can play in their neighbourhood.
It also underlines that — when it comes to the crunch — it’s Germany, France, and sometimes Britain, rather than the European Union which can do the hard labour involved in defusing tensions and securing a semblance of peace.
True, the crisis has spotlighted divisions in the European Union over relations with Russia. The current sanctions regime against Moscow is not popular with all EU states.
And certainly, the collapse of previous ceasefires has stoked doubts as to whether this one will hold. But before they throw up their hands in despair and accept confrontation with Russia — or follow America in seeking to send military aid to the Ukrainian army — European leaders will certainly try — and try again — to secure peace in the neighbourhood.
And the lesson that peace is worth patiently, painstakingly and repeatedly striving for is an important one for Asia’s many star-crossed nations.
This is also why the new European Security Strategy that the EU intends to hammer out by the end of the year should not ignore the different ways in which Europe can help Asia to deal with its many security challenges.
Much has changed in the world since the last European Security Strategy was released in 2003, in the aftermath of the Iraq war. As EU foreign and security policy chief Federica Mogherini pointed out at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, the world today is a disorderly place. “The world is far from being a unipolar one, nor is it truly multipolar … maybe we are living in times of an absence of poles,” Mogherini underlined, adding: “The big question for all of us is … how do we manage complexity?”
Asians are also struggling with the same challenge. For the first time in history, Asia is home to four — even five — important powers: a rising and increasingly assertive China, Japan that wants more influence, Korea searching for an expanded regional role, India which is being wooed by many as a counterweight to China and Asean, the regional grouping which has made peace and cooperation its leitmotif for many years.
Trade and investment are the backbone of EU-Asia relations so far. But an EU-Asia conversation on security is set to be the new frontier. The EU cannot afford to be outside the loop of the dramatic geopolitical power games, rivalry and tension being played out in Asia between China, Japan and India — and the 10 south-east Asian members of Asean. Increased spending on arms across Asia is one indication that the region feels insecure, fragile and uneasy.
The so-called Asian “paradox” — the fact that the region’s economies are closely knit together but governments are still grappling with historical tensions, is pushing some in Asia to take another, closer look at how Europe has been able to deal with its own tensions.
Asian perceptions of security are also changing. The focus on territorial security is shifting to the importance of non-traditional security threats, such as climate change, pandemics, extremism and human trafficking, with some Asians putting the emphasis on “human security”. Across Asia, there is a recognition of the need for a collective or cooperative security architecture. But cooperative security in Asia remains underdeveloped, lacking collective security, regional peacekeeping and conflict resolution functions.
Differing threat perceptions, mutual distrust, territorial disputes, concerns over sovereignty make things very difficult.
But as their views of security evolve, for many in Asia, the EU is the prime partner for dealing with non-traditional security dilemmas, including food, water and energy security as well as climate change.
Asian views of Europe’s security role are changing. Unease about the dangerous political and security fault lines that run across the region and the lack of a strong security architecture has prompted many in Asia to take a closer look at Europe’s experience in ensuring peace, easing tensions and handling conflicts.
As Asia grapples with historical animosities and unresolved conflicts, earlier scepticism about Europe’s security credentials are giving way to recognition of Europe’s “soft power” in peace-making and reconciliation, crisis management, conflict resolution and preventive diplomacy, human rights, the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. Europeans, too, are becoming more aware of the global implications of instability in Asia. Clearly, the EU as the world’s largest trading bloc needs safe trading routes and sea lanes.
Also, Europeans are now recognising that fragile peace in Asia will have an enormous impact on global security. That is one reason that the EU has signed Asean’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and is seeking entry to the East Asia Summit in order to sit beside the United States and Russia.
An important challenge for the EU in its relations with Asia is to retain its identity vis-à-vis the much more dominant role played by the US. As it fashions its distinctive security role in Asia, the EU must make an effort to its own distinct profile in promoting multilateral approaches, the rule of law, good governance and regional integration.
And that’s what makes the progress made with Russia over Ukraine so important.