EU needs more of an Asian presence

Updated: 2012-07-27 12:14

By Kerry Brown (China Daily)

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EU needs more of an Asian presence

Bloc has to be involved in formal relationship with ASEAN along with china, US

When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held its forum in Cambodia during July 9-13, the European Union attended. This was the first time it did so since ASEAN was established nearly 45 years ago - in some ways it is odd that it has taken so long for the EU to participate.

ASEAN itself, from its core 10 member states, has added a number of iterations over the last few years, from ASEAN plus three, to ASEAN plus six, and, in the case of China, ASEAN plus one. In view of the size of the EU's economy and the links between the various ASEAN states and the EU collectively, a more formal footing for their plentiful informal relations would have been good some time ago.

One issue that makes life easier for the EU is the reforms which have been happening in ASEAN member Myanmar since September last year. With the visit of British Prime Minister David Cameron to the country earlier this year, after many years of imposing sanctions and placing pressure on the government there, one of the main blockages to a more regular relationship with ASEAN collectively has been removed. Myanmar also posed particular problems to the EU, because of the complications from its political, historic and economic involvement in the area. Having a more positive relationship here (the EU is looking to lift the sanctions in place against Myanmar to some extent soon) evidently makes life easier.

There is also an issue more internal to the EU itself. With the passing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, and the creation of a unified diplomatic service for the EU 27 member states, the European External Action Service, or EEAS, headed by a high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, the EU has striven for more unity in the way it speaks and works as an external actor. Attending multilateral forums should, at least in theory, be easier. In many ways, as a partner in multilateralism, ASEAN makes a natural partner for the EU, as does the African Union and other groupings.

As the world's largest economic bloc, and one with significant structural challenges now, the EU wants, and needs, its voice to be heard - and within ASEAN members links with its economy are very important. In that sense, it would be odd that the EU were not present at such an important gathering - and one in which some of the most dynamic emerging economies in the world are taking part. In many ways, the EU needs to be present at gatherings like these across the globe in the years ahead. Its voice is a very important one, and its involvement is as far reaching, and as significant, as that of the two other major powers also attending - the US and China. It is now no longer necessary for the EU to be self effacing. It has to speak and be heard more.

What interests might it have in ASEAN at the moment? Beyond the fact that the members of ASEAN would be concerned about the impact of the eurozone crisis on them, and would want to hear direct about what is happening, there is also the EU's interest in stability within the Asian region. In particular, it would want to hear how maritime disputes are being handled. Of course, this is a sensitive issue, and one that in many ways the EU has no direct interest. But as a massive importer and exporter to the Asian region, the security and stability of transport links by sea and otherwise is immensely important to the EU member states. In many ways, much of its hopes for future economic growth will come through this route.

It also has a close interest in the sustainability agenda. Members of ASEAN are some of the key emerging economies in the world, but also some of the thirstiest users of oil, and the ones which are likely to see big increases in their fossil fuel usage, the major culprit for greenhouse cases, in the years ahead. Asia as a region, and ASEAN as a grouping, will be huge sources of growth in the future, but their reliance on coal in particular is something it will be critical to address. Most see the addiction to coal as the greatest challenge in addressing climate change. As a source of technology, and a strategic partner, the EU is extremely important here.

Finally there are more broadly multilateral reasons. As a grouping, China, the EU and the US never formally sit down as a kind of G3 and discuss their mutual concerns. Partly this is because the EU is evidently different to the other two - a collection of sovereign states, rather than two unified ones, which creates problems when it tries to speak on hard security or strategic issues with one voice. It can only do this by gaining the assent of each separate state, and that is often hard won. Partly it is because of the traditional outlook of the other major powers. The US and China have specific security preoccupations and precedents for their actions in the Asia-Pacific region, and ones which they guard against involvement of others in. The EU trying to enter these issues would either complicate, or prove unwelcome.

Even so, there is probably a need now to talk much more as a group - collectively, the US, EU and China make up over half of global GDP. As a bloc, they are immensely important and powerful. While it might be too soon to see formal channels for discussion and debate as a group, certainly informally in the context of other meetings, from the G20 to the ASEAN forum, there is plenty of space to work and meet each other more.

The EU is often berated as disconnected and disunited. This is a common complaint both inside and out. Even so, as an organization which has been painstakingly built up over the last half a century, and even in spite of the challenges that it now faces in the eurozone, perhaps the EU can afford to be a little more confident. In terms of cooperating economically, legally, and administratively, the EU is largely a success.

It is far more integrated than other examples like the African Union or ASEAN. Even a grouping like BRICS has far less coherence than the EU, for all its internal diversity. In that sense, its attendance at another regional grouping should also be a sign that these multilateral projects, in an era of deeper globalization, are important, and that the EU has things to teach others about how they can be achieved. For that reason, symbolically as well as politically, its attendance at ASEAN is part of its own development and evolution as a cohesive and influential diplomatic actor.

Kerry Brown takes up the position of professor and director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney from August. He is team leader of the Europe China Research and Analysis Network (ECRAN) funded by the EU. The views here are his own and should not be taken as representing EU official policy, or that of China Daily.

(China Daily 07/27/2012 page11)