Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Opinion

The EU-Asean dance: an EU diplomat's account

  • 'In 2012, Asean urged it was time to conclude a Strategic Partnership – I agreed and lobbied hard for it – but senior EU officials, including Catherine Ashton (pictured) the EU foreign policy chief at the time, was not a big supporter of the idea' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The EU-Asean Strategic Partnership announced on 1 December by the two organisations' foreign ministers could have been signed several years ago.

Although it is late, the decision is still important and very welcome.

Read and decide

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An important milestone was 2008 when Asean adopted its charter which gave the organisation a legal personality, a stronger institutional framework and, above all, more political heft.

With the charter, Asean got a new spring in its step.

With the charter in place, countries from across the world rushed to ensure that their Jakarta-based ambassadors presented their credentials to the late – and very charismatic - Surin Pitsuwan, who was then ASEAN's secretary general.

The EU did the same. In addition, five months after the adoption of the charter, I arrived at the EU's delegation in Jakarta to work exclusively on EU-Asean relations.

During my five years in Jakarta as the EU's special advisor on Asean (early 2009-2013), I saw ties between the two regions intensify and was happy to play my role in the process.

It was clear from the start that there was ample room for improvement. EU views of Asean were focused on providing technical assistance and financial support for regional integration. But the EU under-estimated the organisation's political role, importance and influence.

To put it bluntly: the EU did not see Asean as an equal partner.

In 2012, Asean urged it was time to conclude a Strategic Partnership – I agreed and lobbied hard for it – but senior EU officials, including Catherine Ashton the EU foreign policy chief at the time, was not a big supporter of the idea.

Asean was considered "too light" to be included in a category which included heavyweights like China, Japan and Russia.

In 2015 when the EU could no longer overlook Asean's growing political clout but was still unsure of how to really engage with the region, policymakers in Brussels came up with a rather awkward recognition of EU-Asean relations as a "partnership with a strategic purpose".

Only a few months after that, ironically, it was Asean that was no longer interested.

Indonesia and Malaysia blocked a stepping up of the relationship because of what they saw (and still see) as the EU's discriminatory policy towards their palm oil exports.

This issue has been ironed out through an agreement reached on December 1 which says that a joint commission will further review the question.

Similar...but different

In many ways, the EU and Asean are similar: both believe in promoting regional cooperation and integration.

"The EU and Asean have the same DNA" was my slogan. Not everybody liked it. Some said the two organisations were too different. The truth is that despite those differences, the drive to integrate is their common DNA.

Becoming a member of Asean is politically less demanding than joining the EU. Members include vibrant democracies like Indonesia and Malaysia but also authoritarian states like Cambodia and Laos.

Asean's political purpose is to maintain peace and harmony between members while abstaining from political interference in each others' domestic policies. Asean now includes 10 members, up from the original five in 1967.

The political bond among these nations, loose though it may be, has greatly contributed to stability in the region.

Moreover, slowly but surely, Asean's plans for economic integration are becoming a reality, although by EU standards this is at snail's speed. In economic terms, Asean is like a sort of EU 'Extra-Lite'.

Asean's most remarkable achievement is its cooperation and 'Integration-Lite' policies vis a vis its neighbourhood. Asean is the driver of the East Asia Summit (EAS), a regional cooperation structure that includes China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the US.

The EU has desperately tried to join the EAS, but made the strategic mistake of seeing the EAS as solely a security forum and making the case that Europe should join as a security partner. It isn't and will never really be.

The EAS is in the first place a forum for cooperation on technical and economic issues. The US, after its first meeting as an EAS member, in 2011, was told to tone down its security focus because of the "multi-faceted character" (read: the technical and economic agenda) of the EAS.

Asean's latest success is the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that it launched in 2011.

The Western media has ignored Asean's key role as the initiator and driver of the world's biggest free trade agreement and described the deal as one that allowed "China to snatch the region away from America". This is nonsense: the US was never considered a potential member by RCEP architects.

The EU is good at deep internal integration. Asean is particularly good at "external" integration. Compared with the EU's neighbourhood policy, Asean's cooperation with its wider region is certainly more successful.

Asean's relationship with big neighbour China, although far from perfect, is certainly better than the EU's uneasy relationship with its big neighbour, Russia.

So why did it take so long for the EU-Asean Strategic Partnership to be concluded?

The answer is simple: the EU should have been quicker and more forward-looking in recognising Asean's geostrategic strength. Still, better now, than never.

Author bio

Jan Willem Blankert is an economist and a veteran of economic and political reform and integration. As an EU official he served in postings in Eastern Europe, the Balkan and Asia. He is the author of China rising, will the West be able to cope?.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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