Written by Felix Heiduk and Ronja Scheler.

2017 does not only mark the fortieth anniversary of official relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU), but also the fiftieth birthday of ASEAN. In August, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, travelled to Manila to offer her congratulations at ASEAN’s golden jubilee. After all, ASEAN represents the EU’s third-largest trading partner after the U.S. and China, while the EU member states make up Southeast Asia’s number one foreign direct investor. Besides economic relations, the EU aspires to a more meaningful foreign and security role in the region. This is because in Brussels, stability as well as security in Asia and prosperity in Europe are deemed two sides of the same coin.

Europeans could intensify their engagement in Southeast Asia by supporting regional cooperation and integration as a contribution to security. While the EU’s very own integration process can in no way serve as a blueprint for ASEAN, some aspects of it can be useful for ASEAN member states wishing to pursue closer integration.

Changing geopolitical environment entails new challenges

Fundamental geopolitical developments in Southeast Asia have posed new challenges to the EU-ASEAN relationship in recent months: the reorientation of U.S. foreign policy under President Trump with the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), China’s growing influence in the region through the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative as well as the increasingly aggressive Chinese foreign policy in the South China Sea. The regional powers have reacted to the resulting strategic uncertainty with a ‘hedging’ strategy, which implies that they look out for new partnerships beyond Beijing and Washington. All the region’s states are united in their will not to be a pawn in the hands of the powerful. This opens up considerable leeway for the EU to strengthen its political profile in Southeast Asia.

In search of a strategic role for the EU

So far, however, the EU is notably absent from the region. To give but one example, the Shangri-la Dialogue held in June 2017, the region’s most important security forum, lacked high-ranking participation on part of the EU – as in previous years. European participation in other regional security forums has been equally low. One should not be surprised, in consequence, that the EU is not perceived as a serious actor in the region by its ASEAN counterparts. Hence its insistence to be admitted to the renowned East Asia Summit and to be officially promoted to a ‘strategic partner’ of ASEAN has failed to resonate with ASEAN. With its ritualised begging for recognition – while at the same time failing to substantiate its claims – the EU runs the risk of achieving quite the opposite: it appears less and less credible to its ASEAN partners.

How to reinvigorate the EU-ASEAN partnership

Rather than investing time and energy in formalities such as its official recognition as ASEAN’s strategic partner or gaining a seat at the East Asian Summit, the EU should put much more flesh on the bones, first, by filling policy concepts and labels with concrete actions backed by the resources necessary. In order to do so, a clarification of its strategic interest and objectives vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, as well as the contributions the EU is willing to make to further security and stability in the region, is indispensable. Concrete strategic objectives rather than a hotchpotch of different initiatives in dozens of policy fields with little overall cohesion should become as much a future yardstick for Brussels’ programmes and initiatives in Southeast Asia as the concrete needs of ASEAN itself. The EU could earn its stripes in the field of foreign and security affairs in at least two areas: supporting conflict management in the South China Sea, and furthering regional cooperation and integration.

With regard to the simmering conflict in the South China Sea, the fact that European powers contribute very little in terms of ‘hard’, military security to the region is not necessarily a disadvantage. Contrary to the U.S. and other players with deeper involvement in Southeast Asia’s military affairs, the EU is not perceived as an actor that pursues its own geopolitical agenda when it comes to the South China Sea. This provides ample opportunities for the EU to expand its role as a civilian power and honest broker. As such, it should use its clout to push for a peaceful settlement of the dispute on the basis of international law. The EU’s expertise in fostering multilateral cooperation and its engagement in non-military modes of conflict management could prove advantageous seeing that other actors like the U.S. or China lack the equivalent skills and are unable to play the honest broker role.

Furthermore, Europeans could intensify their engagement in Southeast Asia by supporting regional cooperation and integration as a contribution to security. While the EU’s very own integration process can in no way serve as a blueprint for ASEAN, some aspects of it can be useful for ASEAN member states wishing to pursue closer integration. This is because the EU has gained unique experiences in developing modes for regional economic integration, border management, or transboundary disaster management – all of which are policy fields that can be found on top of ASEAN’s current agenda, too. Hence, there is substantial potential for closer inter-regional cooperation, whereby Europeans and Southeast Asians can learn from one another’s experiences as well as support each other in tackling a myriad of similar challenges.

Forty years of EU-ASEAN relations left Europeans and Southeast Asians with a unique institutional framework comprising a variety of forums for close cooperation. The EU could use this much more than before as a vehicle to build ever closer relations with ASEAN and to support ASEAN’s very own regional integration process. If the EU were to take on these opportunities with strong determination and the appropriate resources, it would certainly be able to back up its own envisioned role as a credible strategic partner in the region with the required level of unique features and actions. Then, and only then, does it seem feasible that the EU were to be perceived as an actor that walks the walk, rather than one that merely talks the talk, in Southeast Asia.

Felix Heiduk is an Asia Associate in the Research Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Ronja Scheler is a EU/Europe Associate in the Research Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Image credit: CC by European External Action Service/Flickr.

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