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Should the EU be involved in Asian security?

13 July 2012

Asia is certainly capturing the interest of the EU. Just as Cathy Ashton completes her fifth visit to Asia a debate has started in the policy community about whether the EU should be more involved in Asian security.

The debate was kicked off by Jonathan Holslag, a research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies (BICCS). Writing in the European Voice, he argued that it was ‘better for Europe to know its limitations and interests than to make itself ridiculous as a would-be power in Asia.’ There were a number of reasons why the EU should not get involved in the ‘new – and nasty – high politics’ of the Asia-Pacific region. First, it was not in our geopolitical interest. Second, Europe lacked the capacity to involve itself in Asian security matters. Third, any engagement in Asia would be sheer adventurism if it did not flow from a strategic vision shared by all member states. The EU's institutions had a long track record of issuing bold documents that raise expectations in Asia and then of letting partners down because of a lack of consensus. Despite pressure from the US and some Asian countries to become more engaged in Asia the EU’s best scenario was ‘strategic marginalisation.’

Shada Islam, Head of Policy at Friends of Europe, took a different approach in her recent policy brief. She argued that although the EU will never be a Pacific power it could not afford to remain passively on the side lines of developments in Asia. In a globalised world where no one nation, bloc or region could claim to lead the rest, where security was about more than military spending, Europe-Asia cooperation was the only option.  Islam was thus approaching the security debate from a wider perspective, taking in economic growth, climate change, pandemics, humanitarian disasters and poverty. It was also about preventing tensions and conflicts which could endanger global peace and security. Whether they like it or not, Europeans are expected ‘to think and act globally, stand up for certain key universal principles, to be generous and kind to victims and get tough with bullies.’ Security in Asia was about building trust and confidence, preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution. These were issues ‘that Europeans know a thing or two about’.

Jonas Parello-Plesner, a Senior Policy Fellow at the ECFR, took a similar line in an article in the East Asia Forum. Asia was afflicted by a series of distinctly 21st century security problems such as water scarcity which could not be easily solved through traditional military means, and require subtler tools in areas where the EU was strong. Asia was vital for Europe’s prosperity and for this reason alone the EU should engage much more in Asian security.  The EU should have its own distinctive stance on matters of security because, unlike the US, the EU had no military presence in Asia, so its agenda was not driven by great power politics. For example, the EU could act as an ‘international broker’ with regard to the South China Sea as it has in relation to peace in the Middle East.



Although these articles offer differing views on the EU’s approach to security issues in Asia the differences may not be as deep after a second reading. Holslag was not arguing for disengagement from Asia but a more modest approach, taking into account the EU’s current pre-occupation with the euro crisis and the EU’s lack of capabilities and lack of consensus.  There is some merit in arguing that the best contribution the EU could make to global stability is putting its own house in order and seeking to stabilise its immediate neighbourhood. In contrast, Islam and Parello-Plesnar suggest that Europe has global interests, growing especially fast in Asia, and that the EU simply has to engage more with the region. Plus Europe has considerable experience in tackling new security threats that could be useful to Asia.

Whichever side of the argument you come down on, it is encouraging that we have the beginnings of a real debate about the EU’s role in Asia. Certainly the US pivot towards Asia has helped sharpen the focus on security issues. But the EU has to develop its own interests and seek a consensus with the member states. It is over a decade since the EU last produced a communication on Asia. Given the enormous changes in the past ten years it is surely time for an updated reflection on the EU’s interests in Asia and how best to promote and defend them. 

Fraser Cameron