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Webinar Report: Connecting Europe and Asia after Covid-19

10 June 2020

On 10 June, the EU-Asia Centre hosted a webinar ‘Connecting Europe and Asia after Covid-19’ with Maaike Okano-Heijmans (Senior Fellow, Clingendael Institute), Masahiro Kawai (Professor, University of Tokyo and Director General of ERINA), David Ringrose (Head of Unit, DG Connect, European Commission) and Asad Beg (Advisor on Connectivity, EEAS). The event was moderated by Fraser Cameron, the Director of the EU-Asia Centre.

While many faces of connectivity from physical infrastructure to people to people were covered, the growing role of the digital element of connectivity featured most prominently in the discussion. Ms Okano-Heijmans, noted that US-China tensions were making international cooperation more difficult. She highlighted the ability of the EU to influence global standards and rules as it had for privacy GDPR. Currently the EU still lacks regulations in many areas of digital connectivity. China’s Digital Silk Road, as well as the rest of the BRI, has much focused on physical infrastructure, but also looks to internationalize the Chinese standards. The EU, Japan and others countries that share their values should continue to promote a multilateral approach, but also start turning their strategies into more concrete projects on the ground.

Mr Kawai also proposed that more supporting institutional arrangements, such as Japan’s free flow of data with trust during its chairmanship of the G20, and treaties are needed. Shared international standards and regulations as institutional aspects of connectivity are key to operationalizing physical connectivity networks. The EU should also revitalize its strategy for Indo-Pacific collaboration, particularly with the democratic countries, but cooperation with China as the second largest economy remains a necessity.

Mr Beg said that Covid-19 crisis had underlined the importance of connectivity as a solution, with e-health and communication, to mitigate the side-effect of more connected world being more prone to spread of diseases. The EU had woken to connectivity slightly late, but now it was working to promote connectivity underpinned by its values: rule of law, high quality, transparency and sustainability. He highlighted the EU’s plans and cooperation with Japan in the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe, African corridors as well as central Asia and increasingly the Indo-Pacific region.

Mr Ringrose reminded that during last MFF negotiations digitalization had not been a priority, but now it was emerging as one of the two lead components together with the green economy. However, the EU’s Digital Task Force had already demonstrated its positive influence in Africa by inspiring AU strategy for digital transformation. By the end of the year, the EU will introduce a global digital cooperation strategy to map its steps forward. The EU looks to cooperate shoulder to shoulder with Japan, but is also looking to work closer with other partners such as the Republic of Korea.

It was agreed that ASEM can have a constructive role to bring about compatibility and reduce competition between different connectivity approaches. However, the platform must be given a clearer purpose and its remit strengthened to deliver, which the upcoming summit could hopefully provide.

The panellist also discussed the pressure for supply chain diversification that emerged from the Covid-19 and its impact on connectivity. Japan has encouraged diversification of supply chains, but not necessarily away from China, but to add alternatives to China. The transformation was described a move from ‘just in time’ to ‘just in case’ supply chains. The EU should support companies facing the new reality.

On China, the EU is in process of redefining its relationship both as a strategic partner as well as systemic rival. Concluding the investment agreement to open China for European FDI is a priority. Simultaneously, the EU needs to further develop its own trade defence mechanism, such as investment screening and 5G toolbox. Mr Masai reminded that Japan was among the first countries to stop using Huawei for government purposes, which had also sent the message to the private sector.

Recording of the webinar is available here.