Summary Report of the EU Asia Centre and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Roundtable on EU-ASEAN and EU-China relations in Hong Kong
12 December 2016
1. ASEAN priorities and ambitions
Despite steady growth (around 5%) in recent years and the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) there were a number of factors testing ASEAN cohesiveness. Chief among them was how to react to China and especially its claims in the SCS.
On the economic side several countries had been affected by the global slowdown and the drop in commodity prices. Agenda 2025 provided a solid vision for the future but could ASEAN remain competitive and resist protectionist pressures? Many SMEs had doubts about liberalisation. There had also been little progress towards harmonisation of rules and regulations. The development gap remained as wide as ever.
There was no real leadership in ASEAN and internal politics was also causing problems, eg the military takeover in Thailand and the ethnic situation in Myanmar. One suggestion was mini-multilateral leadership on specific issues. The focus on domestic issues meant that there was no critical mass to push ASEAN forward. The lack of solid institutions (properly resourced secretariat) was also mentioned as a hindrance to the integration process. Could the five-year term for the SG be reduced? Should the position best be filled by a political figure rather than a senior official? Could there be changes to the rotating chair? Was there an ASEAN identity? There were few bottom up or people to people initiatives.
The EU was the first provider of FDI, the second provider of tourists and the third trade partner. The EU was the major donor to ASEAN including euros 196m for the secretariat. The prospect of an EU-FTA was not likely in the short term; the EU preferred the bilateral approach eg FTAs with Singapore and Vietnam.
China had also made a big commitment in terms of FDI and tourism was booming eg 8m to Thailand (17m in ASEAN). Beijing was using its influence to try and control or divide ASEAN on key subjects like the SCS. It preferred dealing bilaterally with members. Singapore was currently the ‘bad boy’ in Beijing’s eyes.
The US had upped its game as regards support for ASEAN but how would Trump react? The future of TPP was doubtful. India and Japan were also seeking to increase their influence. Did ASEAN centrality still exist?
3. ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)
There was broad agreement that the ARF was a talking shop. It could not resolve conflicts within its members eg the situation of Rohingya in Myanmar. Some argued that it might be abolished but a majority considered that it still provided a useful function by bringing together such a diverse group. There was often a disconnect between the diplomatic side and the military side. Had ADMM Plus made the ARF redundant? The EU was not a member of the defence ministers grouping which was a problem. Plans to improve the ARF had gained little resonance. The eminent persons’ group had come up with the idea of monitoring of elections – a sign of desperation?
The EU was still excluded from the East Asia Summit (EAS) but it had achieved little apart from bringing the major powers around the table. ASEAN itself was divided on the major security issue of the SCS. The doctrine of non-interference ran deep which was why ASEAN members preferred international bodies to take positions rather than ASEAN as there was less danger of upsetting members.
There were calls for more discussions on concepts of security, more track II involvement (CSCAP, Shangri La, APSC, etc).
4. ASEAN Way Forward
Political changes, especially the election of Trump and Duterte, made the future very unpredictable. ASEAN needed to concentrate on its current agenda, deliver on connectivity, improve capacity building, labour mobility and reduce non tariff barriers. It should also promote labour mobility and civil society exchanges which might encourage an ASEAN identity. There needed to be a debate on amending the consensus principle and strengthening the institutions of ASEAN. ASEAN should raise awareness as a first step towards building an identity.