For the first time, European and Southeast Asian leaders will gather in Brussels on December 14th for a bloc-to-bloc summit. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is now the EU’s 3rd largest trading partner outside Europe, after China and the US. Bilateral trade in goods was worth €215.9 billion last year. And the EU is ASEAN’s third largest trading partner, again after China and the US. More than that, both see a future in deepening ties. The EU became a “strategic partner” of ASEAN in 2020. European militaries now drill with Southeast Asian militaries, and European navies tour the region to maintain freedom of navigation. The EU is a major investor in the region, and increasingly it’s making a niche as a major partner in climate action. But will it come from the EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit?
In September 2019, the European Union issued its Indo-Pacific strategy. Similar to the previously published strategies of France, Germany and the Netherlands, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plays a key role in this strategy. Indeed, the EU and ASEAN are both strong regional organizations that created a multilateral order that transcends their own geographic region. It’s now necessary to further specify the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy; even more, to translate it into concrete policies and implementation measures in regard to Southeast Asia.
The EU is a respected partner of ASEAN, symbolized in the strategic partnership agreement of 2020. Also, a majority of Southeast Asian citizens view the EU’s contribution to regional governance positively. Traditionally, the EU lends political and technical support to ASEAN, emphasizing its regional centrality in the Indo-Pacific.
However, the EU’s concrete influence to uphold a rules-based multilateral order in the Indo-Pacific remains severely limited, not only, but in particular in the South China Sea. In fact, not the European Commission but the EU members France and Germany were in the last months at the forefront of deepening their bilateral security and defense cooperation with Southeast Asian nations, notably Indonesia and Vietnam.
The EU lacks France’s power projection capabilities. It will therefore remain in the foreseeable future an (indispensable) economic actor. Due to the Global Gateway Initiative and the collaboration with the G7 members, Brussels will become an even stronger infrastructure and connectivity partner. However, the EU is neither a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP) nor the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Thus, Europe could lose ground to economic competitors, mainly China but also the US, notably if President Biden realizes his economic initiative.
Due to the critical mood in many European nations, the conclusion and ratification of EU-ASEAN regional trade agreements are highly unlikely. As Brussels strongly upholds social and environmental standards (e.g. in regard to palm oil), even country-specific agreements with Indonesia or Malaysia will be difficult to reach. The EU’s influence on the economic and trade architecture in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific and its role as a norm-setter is, therefore, undermined.
Upholding the highest standards is also the EU’s objective in regard to human rights and democracy. This values-based foreign policy approach is a major element of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy and its policies toward Southeast Asia. This, however, is a highly contested agenda in Southeast Asia where most regimes are of authoritarian or semi-democratic nature.
But while the elites typically reject interference in domestic affairs and are openly critical of alleged Western hypocrisy and the EU’s preachy tone, civil society representatives are much more open towards collaborating with European partners in human rights affairs. Nevertheless, and despite all the fine words on the 45th anniversary of the bilateral partnership, it will remain politically challenging for the EU to carefully and credibly balance its interests and values in its relations with ASEAN and the Southeast Asian governments.
Managing Director New Horizons Project, and Senior Advisor European Policy Centre and Visiting Professor College of Europe (Natolin)
Geopolitics and especially shared concerns about rising US-China rivalry are bringing the EU and ASEAN together. All efforts are now underway to ensure that Russia’s war against Ukraine and continuing human rights violations by the Myanmar junta do not end up driving the two regions apart at the first-ever EU-ASEAN summit in Brussels on December 14th.
Securing a full EU-ASEAN consensus on a strong condemnation of Russia will be more difficult than at the G20 summit, where a majority of the group’s members agreed to rebuke Moscow and called for Russia’s complete and unconditional withdrawal from Ukraine. The reason: not all EU states, nor all ASEAN countries, are members of the G20, a fact which made Indonesia’s job as G20 chair easier than it will be for EU Council President Charles Michel and Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who will be co-chairing the Brussels summit.
Finding an appropriate language on Myanmar may prove equally challenging. EU countries recently agreed on a fifth round of sanctions against Myanmar in response to what they said was “the continuing escalation of violence and grave human rights violations following the military takeover two years ago.” ASEAN has no such measures in place although efforts are under to pressure the military regime to comply with the ‘Five-Point Consensus’ for peace and ASEAN has kept away and outlawed the junta from participating in any high-level summits and meetings.
Sherpas preparing the EU-ASEAN leaders’ talks are hoping to keep the focus on connectivity, trade, food security, health and climate change which are increasingly important in relations between the two regions.
However, here too, dangers lurk. Discord over the EU’s plans to impose a carbon border adjustment tax and restrictive stance on imports of palm oil remain major hurdles in EU-ASEAN trade relations. ASEAN has not shown much interest in the EU’s Global Gateway connectivity plan and while trade and investments between the two regions are booming, the jury is still out on whether the summit will lay the groundwork for the start of an EU-ASEAN free trade agreement.
True, the EU is expanding trade ties with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea, “like-minded” members of the so-called Global West, which despite geography — and in some cases, culture and history — have aligned with the transatlantic stance on Russia and Ukraine.
The challenge facing Brussels now is to move beyond its easy comfort zone.
If an initiative to launch talks on an EU-ASEAN FTA is not doable, the EU must step up efforts to clinch a free trade deal with Indonesia and re-open trade talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Trade deals with Singapore and Vietnam have been signed but as rival trade agreements – including the RCEP, the TPPP and IFEP – proliferate in the region, the EU must up its own Indo-Pacific trade game.
Brussels must move forward on sectoral agreements with ASEAN on the green economy and digital, along the lines of the recent comprehensive air transport agreement (CATA). European businesses in ASEAN have underlined their optimism about economic recovery in the region and are firmly in favor of an EU-ASEAN FTA.
It won’t be easy to rival America’s hard power in the Indo-Pacific or to compete with China’s financial heft. In addition, EU membership of the East Asia Summit is still pending although Michel was invited as Cambodia’s guest at the recent gathering in Phnom Penh. But the EU still does have clout as a trading power and it is a no-brainer that it should use it to reinforce trade relations with ASEAN.
Director of Centre for ASEAN Regionalism Universiti Malaya (CARUM), and Coordinator of the European Studies Programme at the Asia-Europe Institute.
Taking a landmark step to elevate their formal diplomatic relations and move them to the next level, the EU and ASEAN heads/representatives of government are meeting on December 14 in Brussels for their first-ever bilateral inter-governmental summit.
The summit is poised to bring greater harmony amongst different facets of EU-ASEAN ties. Amongst other things, on the sidelines, the EU and Malaysia will be signing the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), the details of which are yet to be out in the public. Malaysia is not the only one to sign an agreement on such a momentous occasion, some other ASEAN countries are also likely to ink important pacts. This is not surprising.
Between 1977, when the EU, in its previous smaller avatar, became a dialogue partner of ASEAN, and 2020, when they signed a strategic partnership agreement, these two most successful regional organizations in the world have come a long way. Keeping diplomatic upheavals at bay, the two regional organizations have maintained stable and consistent ties. This ‘gentlemanly relationship’ may not often excite those who are looking for strategic and military adventures, but it has certainly been positive and effective in building mutual trust and cooperation in trade, commerce, investments, environment, education, and sustainable development sectors. The EU and ASEAN have been deliberating upon the possibility of an inter-regional free trade agreement, which may not come about anytime soon considering varying levels of economic strengths and potentials. Nevertheless, with bilateral trade agreements between EU–Singapore and the EU-Vietnam already in place, and ongoing negotiations with some more is an interesting development. The EU must not lose patience with ASEAN in working out an inter-regional trade agreement.
In 2021, the EU was the second largest foreign direct investor in ASEAN, while ASEAN was the third largest trade partner of the EU. These trends are encouraging. Not surprising, therefore, that the EU – ASEAN Plan of Action to implement the strategic partnership, 2023-2027, also underscores these issues, which also include: sustainable trade; disaster preparedness; pandemic recovery; rules-based and sustainable connectivity; sustainable trade; and, security cooperation as well.
ASEAN is assuming greater importance amidst the emergence of the Indo-Pacific order and countries putting ASEAN centrality at the center of their respective Indo-Pacific strategies. While this is all important and even explains the EU’s interest in the region, shared concerns vis-à-vis great power rivalry, and necessary to keep the international order peaceful and stable are the reasons for the extensive relations between the two regional organizations. Nevertheless, the relationship is not devoid of challenges. For one, the EU and ASEAN differ in their perceptions of the norms and principles of the liberal international order. Sovereignty, democracy and rule of law sometimes mean different things to different countries in the EU and ASEAN. How to deal with questions concerning the Ukrainian crisis, or Myanmar conundrum, or even the South China Sea quagmire, remains evasive, the answers to which would not be easier to find. That said, the summit is likely to bring home more substance and warmth.
Journalist and columnist, and research fellow at CEIAS
It’s largely a symbolic gathering, the first of its kind between the two blocs (and regions). All Southeast Asian governments/states will be represented in person, except Malaysia’s newly-elected prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, and Myanmar’s junta or rebel shadow government. Most of the important structural and administrative issues that define relations have been decided months ago. Any surprising announcement on the Myanmar crisis is unlikely. The Europeans will want their Southeast Asian counterparts to say something bold about the Ukraine War, but they’re unlikely to push this too far. They won’t want to annoy Vietnam, which has abstained on all UN General Assembly votes but which, with the region’s fastest-growing economy, will be doted on.
The Summit also gives Southeast Asian leaders a chance to travel elsewhere in Europe. Pham Minh Chinh, Vietnam’s prime minister, visited leaders in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium before the summit. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen traveled to Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr is making his first visit to European since his election earlier this year. It also comes after some European leaders were in Southeast Asia last week. Macron was one main speaker at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bangkok; German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Indonesia for the G-20 Summit.
Symbolically, the EU-ASEAN summit speaks volumes about the most pressing issues of how to respond to the intensifying US-China rivalry. Almost all Southeast Asian governments want to “hedge” between the two superpowers, and to diversify and foster relations with other economic (and sometimes geopolitical) powerhouses like the European Union and Japan. Europeans also want a degree of autonomy between the two superpowers, although any effort to improve relations with Beijing (such as Scholz’s recent visit) is now given the most critical of eyes. Macron’s vision of European “strategic autonomy” has been greatly weakened by the Ukraine War; the vast majority of the military materiel and funds for Ukraine has come from the US, and whatever the narrative in some the European countries, the Ukrainians would have folded very early if it was only Europeans supplying them. Instead, we now get Scholz’s vision of a Zeitenwende, “an epochal tectonic shift.” As he put it on a visit to Vietnam last month, that means expanding sales markets, sources for raw materials and production sites. Or, rather, “we are witnessing is the end of an exceptional phase of globalization,” as he also put it, and the fight is now on as to how (and who will) best define its new phase. For Europeans and Southeast Asians, that means accelerating trade growth with states other than the US and China, forms of multilateralism that do not rely on superpower support (such as EU-ASEAN dialogues), and trade that is defined by climate action.
So expect the climate to feature heavily. Not only is this sensible, since Southeast Asian countries need a whole lot of investment in the coming years for energy transition and to reduce the impact of climate change. For the Europeans, focusing on climate also differentiates their investments and dialogue from that of the US, China or Japan. Focusing on the climate allows the Europeans to stand out, especially in a region where the US and China dominate narratives about outside influence and leverage, and where Western governments are considered too preachy and intrusive about human rights and democracy (topics that are unlikely to be spoken about for too long at the summit, given the ascendency of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia right now). It’s a pity that Anwar, the new Malaysian prime minister, won’t be in attendance since Malaysia has taken the EU to the WTO over its palm-oil policy. But there could be some progress in talks with Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, which also has a WTO case against the EU over palm oil. (The WTO should rule on them soon.) Moreover, the Europeans will want to ingratiate themselves with Widido since Indonesia takes over the ASEAN chairmanship for next year.