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ASEAN-EU Relations: It Takes Two To Tango

By Fraser Cameron

8 July 2019

The EU feels like the jilted lover in its relations with ASEAN. It has wooed and invested in the ten-member Southeast Asian bloc for some time while seeking a strategic partnership with ASEAN and membership at the East Asia Summit. It was hoped a strategic partnership would be agreed at the January 2019 ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting in Brussels but it did not happen, partly due to disputes over palm oil and human rights. The EU meanwhile has hedged against impediments in inter-regional partnership by placing more emphasis on relations with individual ASEAN member states. Far-reaching free trade agreements (FTAs) have been signed with Singapore and Vietnam while others are under negotiation. While the idea of a region-to-region FTA remains a future aspiration, the EU is still keen to support ASEAN economic integration and provides considerable FDI and technical assistance to ASEAN. The EU also remains ASEAN’s second largest trading partner but somehow the ardour has gone out of the relationship. This is partly due to exaggerated expectations about the nature of ASEAN and what it can deliver.

ASEAN in EU Foreign Policy

Relations with ASEAN have traditionally been a key pillar in the EU’s overall relations with Asia that involve multiple approaches and layers. First, the continent-tocontinent relationship through the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), generally regarded as a useful talk shop, but

little more. Second, the EU-ASEAN relationship that has been built up during more than four decades. Regional integration is part of the EU’s DNA, hence the desire to support other regional groupings to develop. The third element is bilateral relationships between the EU and individual ASEAN member states. And the fourth element is bilateral relationships between the member states of both organisations.

ASEAN is probably near the top of the third tier of EU foreign policy priorities. The first is the EU’s difficult and tense neighbourhood dealing with Russia, Ukraine, the Western Balkans, Turkey and North Africa. The second is the EU’s strategic partners, particularly the US, China, Japan and India. Then comes ASEAN, and the increasing importance of the bloc for the EU was demonstrated by the appointment of a resident EU ambassador to ASEAN in 2015. The EU, however, often fails to see how different ASEAN is in its construction and mission. It also often fails to understand the relevance of European colonialism in Southeast Asia to contemporary politics.

The EU has always viewed ASEAN as a potential supporter of its vision of a liberal, democratic, rules-based, multilateral system. This world view has been increasingly challenged by the advent of strong nationalist leaders from Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan. The EU’s hopes for a more liberal democratic Southeast Asia have also been dashed with President Rodrigo Duterte’s election in the Philippines, the military takeover in Thailand, the expulsion of the Rohingya in Myanmar and continuing one-party rule in several other countries. Indonesia, the largest country in the region, has proven its democratic credentials but has been reluctant to take a leadership role or be supportive of EU positions, for example on Ukraine and Syria at the United Nations.

The EU is also disappointed that ASEAN has failed to become more coherent because of its internal structures and procedures, policy differences among the member states and China’s divide-and-rule tactics. Despite these developments, until recently EU-ASEAN relations were on an upward trend with both sides apparently looking forward to signing a strategic partnership. This in itself would not have changed the bilateral ties much but it would have been a useful symbolic statement. But at the January ministerial meeting in Brussels, this was put on hold due to differences over the environmental impact of palm oil production in Malaysia and Indonesia. There have also been differences over human rights in Myanmar and Cambodia with the EU threatening to suspend the two countries’ tariff-free access to EU market. Brunei’s recent decision to introduce brutal punishment for gay sex and adultery also caused widespread revulsion in Europe. But as some Southeast Asian experts point out, the EU has not been as vocal in its criticism of Saudi Arabia.

Where Now and Next?

Given these recent developments, the EU has found it difficult to maintain enthusiasm for deepening its commitment to ASEAN as opposed to individual member states. Nevertheless, negotiations for an aviation agreement are nearing completion and should give a boost to two-way tourism. Trade and investment are flourishing: EU-ASEAN trade increased from US$230.7 billion in 2015 to US$261.4 billion in 2017, and the EU remained the largest FDI source to ASEAN with an inflow of US$25 billion in 2017. The EU continues to provide technical assistance to ASEAN in trade and transport, environment, education and culture, harmonisation of standards, protection of intellectual property rights and disaster management. A key goal is to improve connectivity between ASEAN member states through sustainable, inclusive economic integration and trade. The EU has also promoted a number of dialogues covering human rights, maritime cooperation, peace and reconciliation, migration and mobility, development goals, health and communicable diseases.

When the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, attends the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in August this year, she may gently point out the EU’s disappointment if it is not admitted as an observer to the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Groups (EWGs) activities. The EU considers that its soft power and overall comprehensive approach to security is something that would be of relevance to Southeast Asia. It has, for example, held a number of training seminars on maritime security in the region, but without any follow-up on the ASEAN side. Too often it seems the EU and ASEAN talk past each other when it comes to security issues.

Looking to the future, the EU and ASEAN should broaden their existing ARF security dialogue to discuss human security – specifically vulnerable groups such as refugees – and exchange expertise to better address social drivers of radicalisation and how to tackle cybersecurity. Data is another hugely important and complex issue that should be on the agenda.

Meanwhile, Brexit is another cloud hanging over the relations. If and when the UK leaves the EU, it will weaken the Asia lobby within the EU. The UK has talked about Asia as a priority for its post-Brexit trade strategy and plans to send an ambassador to ASEAN. But it first has to negotiate its future trading arrangements with the EU before embarking on deals with third countries.

Conclusion The EU has put forward many recommendations in recent years to deepen the relationship but has not received a comprehensive response from ASEAN. The EU has a strong track record in promoting the development of ASEAN, including the ASEAN Secretariat, and has provided €200 million in funding in the past five years. The EU is rather disappointed that ASEAN has not been more vocal in defending the liberal, rulesbased, international order; nor has ASEAN been overly enthusiastic about EU plans to improve EU-Asian connectivity. The EU is also moving forward with a pilot project to deepen security ties with a number of Asian countries including some individual ASEAN members as opposed to the group as a whole. From a Brussels perspective, ASEAN has to decide what kind of actor it wishes to be in a very uncertain world and who its friends are. The EU has not given up on ASEAN but it considers that the ball is now in ASEAN’s court and future relations will depend on how ASEAN wishes to develop the relationship. The EU also has other priorities and a jilted lover does not wait for ever.

Dr. Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU-Asia Centre, Brussels.

This op-ed was also published in the third 2019 issue of ASEANFocus.