Keeping pace with Asian trade in Europe: does the EU have a future in Asia?

, by Adrien Touwaide, translated by Kate Ezard

Keeping pace with Asian trade in Europe: does the EU have a future in Asia?

On 8th August 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded. Its formation was relatively similar to our beloved EU; its operation, however, differs greatly. Whilst the member states of the EU endow institutions with supranational jurisdiction, ASEAN is ruled on a non-interference basis between the states. In other words, national sovereignty takes precedence over regional cooperation.

Southeast Asia belongs to these constantly growing areas where multiple opportunities and conflicts have emerged. Pigeonholed for a long time as the world’s factory, and exploited by colonial empires greedy for resources, the ten member countries (except Thailand, which was never colonised) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) freed themselves from the imperial domination in the wake of the second world war. They proclaimed their independence and on 8th August 1967 formed ASEAN. Its formation was relatively similar to our beloved EU; its operation, however, differs greatly. Whilst the member states of the EU endow institutions with supranational jurisdiction, ASEAN is ruled on a non-interference basis between the states. In other words, national sovereignty takes precedence over regional cooperation.

European interests in the region

ASEAN incorporates more than ten countries with 650 million inhabitants who have achieved the feat of almost doubling their combined GDP in ten years and thereby establishing themselves as the world’s fifth biggest economy. As a region of great interest, the EU has been able to increase its trade agreements with the South Asian continent. In 2018, the EU had done almost €208 billion worth of trade with different countries, ranking as the third global partner behind China and the United States. Aware of the bright economic perspectives of different members of the zone, the EU started negotiating a free-trade treaty. Only Singapore (2014) and Vietnam (2015) have currently ratified trade agreements. Owing to their geographical location in the South China Sea, the blossoming trade and natural inclination towards international trade, Brussels has taken the opportunity to forge strong alliances with this new economic partner.

In 2018, the Commission launched its innovative new project ‘Connecting Europe and Asia – Building Blocks for an EU Strategy’; it was spearheaded by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s former High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Connection is the guiding principle of this new policy which anticipates a growth in trade opportunities by considerably reducing air, sea and road customs on the entire Asian continent. At first glance, this is a tremendous, far-sighted and pragmatic idea that Brussels has taken, but was it really a novelty to invest in this part of the world, for so many decades inadvertently considered unimportant? Didn’t other international players consider the case for a presence in the ASEAN area before?

Made in China? The EU is keen

Who has already made that move? Unsurprisingly, the answer is China, ASEAN’s huge neighbour, rapidly understood how important the ASEAN area is becoming. An ambivalent relationship that sees cooperation and fear overlap, and where the South China Sea is becoming a new area of confrontation with the American government, the Chinese government has always made a point of asserting its apparent goodwill with its neighbouring countries. Thus in 2013, president Xi Jinping introduced his project: the Belt and Road Initiative. Comprising of six commercial corridors linking East Asia to Europe’s doorstep, the speed of investment has demonstrated the Beijing’s persuasiveness. The Chinese government intends to fulfil its desire to become the world’s biggest market by increasing its manufacturing capabilities and links between its trading partners tenfold. According to a report by the World Bank, the estimated profits will be higher in terms of reduced travel time (decrease of 5.2%), net growth of international trade (+7.2% for the involved countries) and could allow more than 7.5 million people to be lifted out of extreme poverty (people living on less than $1.90 a day).

The resemblance between the two projects is undeniable and Beijing has already shown its claws when confronted with Europe’s wishes. Federica Mogherini’s sincerity was doubtable when she claimed in September 2018 that the announcement for the Connectivity project was by no means a reaction to the Chinese project. ASEAN makes up a tiny but crucial part of the two competing projects. China, benefitting from its geographical proximity and regional domination, is assuming the role of the preferred partner for the involved countries. Should Brussels resign itself to playing second fiddle and be viewed like any other trading partner, like Mercosur or Canada?

Awakening Europe’s boldness?

28 (or rather, 27) countries can’t be completely reduced to an image of a single currency and subjected to the volatile risks of the international market. Despite the huge rifts which the EU is currently suffering, the experience of more than sixty years of joint construction, our ability to overcome unprecedented crises during the last few decades have created an untapped power. It would be going too far to use the same expression that Emmanuel Macron stated to The Economist – that “Europe [is] on the edge of a cliff”; however, his pessimism is not unfounded.

The inter-institutional battles and the EU’s dominance have restricted its boldness and innovation necessary to lead a relevant common foreign policy. Strengthened by its experience in the creation of the Euro Zone and the Schengen Area, the EU has always prioritised the commercial side of things in order to forge new relations. However, they could employ other less rational, less conventional approaches.

ASEAN exemplifies a negotiating style that the EU could adopt. The goal of economic rapprochement with this bountiful zone is clear, but there is a great deal of competition from different players. European soft power must be employed in order to pursue EU interests in the region. Reuben Wong and Scott Brown have advocated for using ‘non-traditional’ strategies, in order to increase visibility of Europe’s scope of action and to leave behind the sterility of trade agreements.

Two areas to work on

The first area is the fight against terrorism. In the last fifteen years, appalling terrorist attacks have shaken the European continent. From Madrid to Brussels to Paris, not one European capital has been spared. The cooperation between different national police forces has bolstered the emergence of a real terrorist-fighting expertise. The recent collapse of ISIS in Syria will see more than 3,000 soldiers return home to Europe, and more than 1,000 others to Malaysia and Indonesia. In face of the likely resurgence of terrorist networks, it is in the world’s interest that countries in Asia are protected by better regional cooperation. The EU’s presence must be increased at ASEAN’s Regional Forum, an organisation that brings together 27 states to discuss security issues in Asia and Indonesia. Asia is the breeding ground of several Islamist organisations like Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, and recent attempted attacks in Kuala Lumpur and in the Malaysian state of Sabah confirm the hypothesis that secret networks are spreading. The anti-terrorism experience gained in Europe through transnational collaboration is a unique opportunity to support applicant countries with this growing threat.

Moreover, climate change and managing natural disasters highlight the limits of intra-ASEAN cooperation. After the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, the EU took a leading role in the recovery of the Indonesian state of Aceh by organising new elections there and financially supporting the new government. Currently, the untimely climate crises caused by forest fires in Indonesia and Malaysia are contaminating a large part of the continent each year.

At its worst, in 2015, more than 100,000 people died following a cloud of pollution which hung above Asian mega-cities for more than four months. Faced with this, the affected countries (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) are still struggling to find an appropriate solution. As a pioneer in environmental issues, the EU has prioritised sustainable investments and environmental legislation since the 1990s. Inclusive dialogue has probably been one of the EU’s finest achievements recently, putting forth the EU as the global institution who has passed the most environmental legislation over the past twenty years. Europe’s expertise and knowledge could serve as an example in order to overcome this endemic problem. The goal is obviously not to affix an ethnocentric view on Asian affairs, nor to replicate the same European structures, but rather to demonstrate which resources were used in order to facilitate coordination between different countries.

At the moment, Europe is shaken, and even flouted some of its founding principles but remains a major international player. The European Union and external action are not incompatible, but must be openly asserted in order to protect our interests outside of our continent. It is crucial that we look overseas in order to keep pace with current superpowers. It took the EU twenty years to build the radio navigation system Galileo, intended to compete with the US hegemonic GPS. The challenge of developing 5G seems to have been side-lined in favour of Chinese-American competitors. In recent years the EU has suffered from internal conflicts but, unlike in the past, does possess resources. Prioritising political dynamism and learning to negotiate with their ever-powerful neighbour, China – whether as an ally or a competitor – reveals itself to be crucial to reaching the promised land of ASEAN.

he approach taken by Josep Borrell will be crucial. But whether on the question of ASEAN, disputes with Russia or a hypothetical common military policy, ambition and pragmatism will be essential to ensure that the European Union doesn’t limit itself to being just a vast market with no long-term vision.

This article was originally published by our partner publication Eyes on Europe

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