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Ashton in Asia

Ashton in Asia - Again

13 July 2012

Cathy Ashton seems to get it now. Her current visit to China and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Phnom Penh is her fifth trip to Asia this year. The increased attention is also bringing results. ASEAN ministers agreed that the EU could join a regional treaty paving the way for the EU to take part in the East Asia summit. The PCA with the Philippines was signed in the margins. A first EU-US dialogue on Asia with Hillary Clinton was held. And en route to the ARF Ashton had a series of useful meetings in China.


Ashton’s first stop was Beijing for the third EU-China Strategic Dialogue. The EU’s foreign policy chief had already established a good relationship with her main Chinese counterpart, State Councillor Dai Bingguo. On this occasion the nine hours of talks were cemented with a boat trip that allowed a number of sensitive issues to be discussed. She also met premier Wen Jiabao and Defence Minister Liang Guanglie.

Although the on-going sovereign debt crisis provided a difficult background for the talks, EU and Chinese leaders were able to discuss the most pressing international issues such as Iran and Syria as well as trade and investment, security cooperation, plus human rights (although the last point was not mentioned in the communique). On Syria and Iran, Dai reiterated China's long-held position of non-interference in internal affairs of third countries. Disputes should be settled by peaceful means through dialogue and cooperation. Dai also refrained from raising two of the most sensitive issues in the relationship; the arms embargo and market economy status. While not resulting in any major breakthroughs, Ashton said the talks were an important opportunity to reduce misunderstandings and would help pave the way for the next EU-China summit in Brussels in September.

It would have been unrealistic for the participants to resolve some of the difficult trade issue including the arms embargo, market economy status and the Chinese refusal to comply with the EU’s controversial carbon tax for airlines flying to Europe. But the advantages of the dialogue became clear with the agreement to hold regular talks on crisis management and the fight against piracy.  A high-level seminar on defence and security is planned for next year. Both sides also agreed to improve contacts between their respective special representatives and special envoys. EU officials present considered that the meeting had paved the way for a new, qualitative, step forward in EU-Chinese discussions on foreign and security policy. Looking ahead to the September summit, Ashton was confident that it would bring progress on trade and investment as well as urbanisation, rural development, food and water security and disaster risk management.


 The ARF was dominated by the on-going disputes regarding the South China Sea. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have increased in recent months between China and the Philippines, and between China and Vietnam. Normally the host nation seeks to secure approval of a communiqué but on this occasion Cambodia decided it was not worth the effort. Indonesia, which has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, tried to forge a last-minute consensus at the meeting but without success. Some participants allege that the Chinese pressed Cambodia not to push for an accord.  US Secretary of State Clinton said everyone should be worried about the increase in tensions, the confrontational rhetoric and disagreements over exploitation of resources. She opined that the disputes should be resolved ‘without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without use of force.’ China has stated that the South China Sea disputes should be resolved on a bilateral basis. Other issues discussed included DPRK with most participants urging a resumption of the six party talks and the positive developments in Burma/Myanmar. There was little time for discussion about the future of the ARF. The future workplan was also adopted without debate.

EU-US Cooperation

Ashton and Clinton also had a bilateral to launch a new EU-US dialogue on Asia-Pacific issues. This was something that had been agreed at the last EU-US summit and was now being put into practice. In a joint statement both sides said that interdependence between the EU, US and Asia had reached ‘unprecedented levels.’ Both the EU and the US intended seeking closer cooperation with Asian partners in fighting transnational crime, terrorism and addressing cyber-security issues, while ensuring freedom of expression and the free flow of information in accordance with international law. It added that the two sides were already cooperating with their partners in the region to build disaster preparedness and crisis response capacity. Non-proliferation, counter-piracy and maritime security were also included in the list. On the contentious issue of the South China Sea, the two sides said they would continue to encourage ASEAN and China to agree a Code of Conduct and to resolve territorial and maritime disputes through peaceful, diplomatic and cooperative solutions.

On the trade front, the two sides underscored the importance of open markets in enhancing growth and development in the Asia-Pacific region. They agreed to continue to press Asian partners to improve reciprocal market access for goods and services including government procurement, to reduce non-tariff-barriers, to provide legal security for investment, and to protect intellectual property rights. There was no reference, however, to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC)

 One good piece of business transacted at the ARF was that the ten ASEAN Foreign Ministers signed the instrument necessary for the EU's accession to the TAC.  The TAC dates from 1976 and is a non-aggression and cooperation pact between ASEAN members and their partners. It is also a precondition for membership of the East Asia Summit, something that the EU has wanted to join for some time.

 PCA with the Philippines

 In the margins of the ARF meeting, Ashton and Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario signed the EU-Philippines PCA. Ashton said: ‘With the Philippines, Europe has a long historical relationship. We share many common beliefs such as on human rights or on democracy. The level of trust between the Philippines and the EU is such that sensitive political issues are already part of our daily work, be it co-operation on counterterrorism, non-proliferation or the peace process in Southern Mindanao, where the EU is a willing and engaged partner.’