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EU-ASEAN Ministerial Charts Progress

21 January 2019

21 January 2019

The Foreign Ministers of the world’s two largest economic integration blocks today agreed “in principle” to upgrade their relationship to a ‘strategic partnership’ in what they described as “an important signal showing that the two most advanced and most successful integration processes in the world stand firmly behind multilateralism and a rule-based global order.” Both parties reiterated their longstanding partnership as “partners in integration” and set out to strengthen cooperation in a number of key areas, including the future of global trade, connectivity, cyber security, energy security and counterterrorism. 

The Brussels ministerial took place just hours after the Council adopted new conclusions on EU-ASEAN relations (see below) which listed several avenues for enhanced cooperation. In a remarkably short document, the Council reiterated its offer to contribute substantially to policy and security and defense-related fora led by ASEAN, and underlined its determination to advance mutually beneficial cooperation on connectivity in line with the EU’s recently adopted connectivity strategy.

Interestingly, the conclusions dropped previous references to making EU participation in the East Asia Summit process a condition for upgrading EU-ASEAN relations. 

The joint statement (see below) reaffirmed the intent of both sides to work towards a ‘strategic partnership’ – a long-cherished EU aim. Even though the idea of a strategic partnership has been floated for a number of years, EU officials expect ASEAN will not be in any rush to implement this commitment.

Notably, the joint statement expresses the parties’ “deep concern about the systemic impact of protectionist measures that are incompatible with WTO rules and that put the multilateral trading system at risk.” The statement also urges ASEAN members to aptly conclude negotiations with China on an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The EU added the expectation that such a code be consistent with international law, including UNCLOS in particular. 

One shadow hanging over the meeting was the sensitive issue of palm oil, with Indonesia and Malaysia having publicly expressed their discontent with the EU’s decision to phase out the usage of palm oil in transport fuels by 2030. Even though the EU is bound to follow through on this decision, a number of ASEAN leaders felt obliged to raise the issue again to respond to their domestic constituencies (Indonesia is facing a presidential election this year). 

The ministerial bears witness to the EU’s intensification of its engagement with Asia over recent months. In the past half-year, the Council has adopted conclusions on connectivity, India, security cooperation with Asia, and now also on ASEAN. Free trade agreements with a number of Asian states are also in the making.

Find the joint statement here; find the Council conclusions here.