Thursday

24th Jun 2021

Column

EU needs good diplomats in Indo-Pacific, not people in uniforms

Europe's planned strategy for a stronger "strategic focus, presence and actions" in the Indo-Pacific sparks breathless commentary. No holds are barred as experts, young and old, qualified and not-so-qualified, weigh in with their views.

It is all good, worthy stuff.

Read and decide

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  • The EU's Indo-Pacific future looks bright provided three strategic pitfalls are avoided

Only the curmudgeonly would deny the EU its moment of glory and the chance to sharpen its profile in the treacherously-crowded waters of the Indo-Pacific.

Europe's recognition of Asia's increasing clout and Asian countries' re-assessment of the EU as more than a political pygmy are to be encouraged.

The EU's summit with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi over the weekend in Porto is vivid proof of ongoing geopolitical rebranding of nations. It also sends a powerful message that there is more to EU-Asia relations than a fixation with China.

Still, keeping track of Beijing's love-hate - 'can't live with you, can't live without you' - relationship with Europe remains front and centre of EU preoccupations.

It has also spawned a lucrative industry of sharp-eyed shock and awe commentary from an ever-growing pool of China-watchers.

The thrills are unstoppable.

How different from years ago when, as the Brussels-based Europe correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, a weekly news magazine in Hong Kong, I found hunting for stories on EU-Asia relations as painful as pulling teeth.

EU policymakers had little time to spare for a continent which was viewed as too big, too far away, and too poor.

Some like Javier Solana, Chris Patten and Pascal Lamy were ahead of the pack in recognising Asia's ascending significance.

But others tended to be paternalistic and condescending.

In Hong Kong, my editors - British, American, Indian and Australian - were sceptical about Europe's relevance. Among EU hacks in Brussels, interest in Asia was zero.

Stubborn, determined and curious, I wrote for the Review until 2004 (when it sadly closed its doors), studiously tracking the rollercoaster engagement between Europe and Asia.

Driven by business, clouded by politics and struggling to emerge from colonialism's dark shadow, the story remains fascinating.

Often, history repeats itself. Human rights, now focused on the Uighurs in China has always been a thorn in the flesh in EU-Asia ties.

Before the current Western obsession with China, there was fear over an imminent Japanese global economic takeover.

Just as Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, lectures the EU today on towing the American line on China, Richard Holbrooke, the US special Af-Pak envoy under president Bill Clinton, was a frequent visitor to EU headquarters urging Europe to up its presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Selective attention

Western focus on Asia was as selective as it is today, with few paying attention to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) or recognising Indonesia's importance as the world's most populous Muslim majority country.

Fast forward to 2021 and Europe-Asia relations are on a roll, with no doubting Thomas in sight.

Once primarily dominated by business, the EU-Asia conversation is becoming more multi-faceted, covering climate change, connectivity, health and security.

The EU's Indo-Pacific future looks bright provided three strategic pitfalls are avoided.

First, Europe must work to lower US-China geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific, not add to them.

It can do so by encouraging a broader, more inclusive, more nuanced and less hard-security conversation in the region.

EU policymakers are right to resist pressure to emulate the hard security stance and implicit anti-China bias of Quad members: US, Japan, Australia and India.

As Asian experts including Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani underline, competition in Asia is not military but economic in nature.

The Indo-Pacific's real strategic game centres on economic integration.

This is happening through the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement signed by 15 Asia-Pacific nations in November 2020 and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade pact between 11 countries, that Japan revived after the US left the original Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Second, while China-US rivalry grabs the headlines, it would be a mistake to simplify or neglect the region's other complex realities.

Myanmar is one unfortunate illustration of frail governance in the region. EU hopes of promoting its values in the region also face a challenge in other countries where nationalism and populism are rising while democratic standards slide.

Third, the temptation to over-romanticise its friends and over-vilify its competitors must be resisted.

Building a special relationship with ASEAN or India does not mean ignoring their fragilities.

And while America's framing of China as an "existential threat" is an exaggeration, the EU should also hold strong against an over-reliance on China for trade and investments.

The EU is no stranger to the Indo-Pacific, having built up a network of trade agreements and "partnership" pacts across the region over years.

Competition for Asian hearts and minds will get tougher as the Biden Administration and post-Brexit Britain step up their Indo-Pacific game.

Europe can offer a "third way" of connecting and engaging with Asia. That will require skilled and experienced diplomats, not men and women in uniform.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.

Disclaimer

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

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