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Through the Looking Glass – ASEAN-EU Relations in a New Era

The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit last October marked the 40th anniversary of the formal relations between the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The biennial event, which gathered more than fifty heads of state, offers a unique platform for these two regional bodies to exchange their shared goals and differences. While many obstacles have plagued their cooperation, the two organizations have recently been increasingly drawn to each other. On an increasingly multilateral, international scene, both ASEAN and the EU are striving to assert their identity and credibility as major actors. In which ways will their cooperation further bolster their existence while enhancing a mutually beneficial relationship?

Image courtesy of the European External Action Service, © 2018. No changes were made to this image.

The geographical remoteness has hindered the inter-regional partnership, leading the two organizations to flourish in parallel and prioritize their relations with more direct partners. Additionally, ASEAN policymakers are perplexed by the EU’s structure, as the two organizations have divergent approaches to regional integration. European countries have transferred some of their powers to a supranational level. Such a concept is alien to ASEAN where non-interference between member states and consensus are the cornerstones holding the organization together.

The EU has often attempted to export its above-mentioned model to ASEAN without always acknowledging Southeast Asia’s potential added value. ASEAN is often wrongfully assumed as following the same regional integration model as the EU. However, ASEAN embodies its own form of regional integration, and which does not seek to mimic the European model. Here lies their biggest inter-regional challenge: the EU lacks the realization that ASEAN possesses its own form of regionalism as well as its own identity and normative power. This seriously hampers their larger goals as both organizations seek to assert their collective voice, and by extension relevancy, on the international chessboard. Sustained inter-regional dialogue will only enhance each organization’s global legitimacy.

Yet, recent developments have demonstrated a clear commitment from both sides to improve their relations. For example, the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was finally concluded during the ASEM summit and the FTA with Vietnam will be finalized next spring. ASEAN represents the EU’s third largest trading partner with more than EUR 227 billion of trade in goods last year while the EU is the largest investor in ASEAN countries with Foreign Direct Investment amounting to EUR 263 billion. Talks of a more ambitious ASEAN-EU wide FTA were revived this year and the recent agreement with Singapore could act as blueprint. Together, the two organizations would represent a market of more than 1.1 billion consumers. ASEAN has been specifically interested in what it could learn from the EU in terms of connectivity, with an ongoing Air Transport Agreement and initiatives on digital economy in small to medium sized enterprises.

The future also holds golden opportunities in terms of political affairs. There has been a shared curiosity on what the two organizations can learn from each other in the sector of non-traditional security threats with joint training and technical cooperation initiatives, especially to deter hybrid threats and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear risks (CBRN). As Southeast Asian waters are often plagued with piracy, the EU could further build on its expertise in maritime security by sharing the lessons learned during its Operation ATALANTA to fight piracy along the Horn of Africa. Maritime cooperation seems to have the wind in its sails and the two organizations have plenty to learn from one another in terms of multinational patrols coordination and surveillance technology. Additionally, they have faced similar terrorist threats and the EU could learn from ASEAN’s experience using interfaith dialogue to prevent violent extremism.

To reaffirm its relevance as a political actor in the Asia-Pacific scene, the EU should seek membership to the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM)-Plus, the two most powerful trans-regional forums in the area. ASEAN would have clear incentives to support an EU membership in these fora. The organization has long been stuck between superpowers – China and the United States – and has sought to balance the sometimes-overwhelming influence of those external partners by promoting multilateral relations through trans-regional forums. ASEAN could therefore garner another opportunity to minimize these influences by adding the more soft power-oriented EU into the regional mix.

ASEAN and the EU have a shared mutual view on community building through collective rules, and are therefore pioneering new approaches to regionalism and the role of regional integration within the international geopolitical power play. By increasing their inter-regional cooperation, both regional organizations will support each other’s legitimacy and validate their credibility within the larger international scene. But it can also help achieve their common not-so-secret goal: securing the durability of a group of states united by their will to remain relevant despite pressure from bigger powers. Sometimes it is better to pretend the elephant is not in the room.


Emile Fabre

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