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7th Dec 2022

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EU and 10 Asian states pulling together against Russia and China

  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine is drawing new dividing lines around the world (Photo: Lynsey Addario)
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The EU is aiming to pull 10 south-east Asian states into the Western camp on Russia and China when they meet for their first-ever summit in Brussels on 14 December.

"We strongly condemn Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, which violates international law and call on Russia to immediately and unconditionally cease its military invasion and withdraw all forces and military equipment from the entire territory of Ukraine," EU and ASEAN leaders plan to say in a joint declaration.

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"We firmly reject, and unequivocally condemn and will never recognise the illegal annexation by Russia of Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, and the continued illegal annexation of Crimea," adds the draft summit communiqué, seen by EUobserver.

ASEAN stands for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Most of them already voted in favour of an EU-drafted UN resolution condemning Russia's annexations earlier this month, but Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam abstained.

The draft ASEAN summit declaration also condemns "Russia's actions that undermine global food security" as well as "use of disinformation by Russia on this crucial issue," with Moscow blaming Western sanctions for food shortages.

In broader terms, the EU and its Asian friends aim to pledge allegiance to the "rules-based international order and effective multilateralism".

They also aim to voice criticism of China's militarisation of maritime regions and its threats to reconquer Taiwan.

"In the South China Sea, we are committed to maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation and overflight," the summit statement said. "We encourage all actors to avoid any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region," it added.

"We are preoccupied by the recent heightening of tensions in the strait of Taiwan and we oppose the use of force. We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues," it also said.

The ASEAN summit ambitions stand in stark contrast to trends in EU-China relations.

A recent stock-taking of China ties by the EU foreign service, also seen by EUobserver, said: "China-Russia bilateral relations clearly amount to a strong strategic partnership, based on support for each other's core interests, and cannot be ignored."

It said Beijing was moving further away from EU values on human rights and international law in what amounted to "assertive competition" with the West.

It described EU-China trade in areas such as semi-conductors and rare-earth minerals as a "strategic vulnerability" that needs to be minimised.

And it called for the EU to "provide a better offer" for its friends in Asia in order to prevent them falling into China's sphere of influence.

With that in mind, the ASEAN summit statement speaks of deeper coordination with its "strategic partners" on "a broad range of security and defence-related issues" as well as trade.

"We will aim at resumption of negotiations [on bilateral free-trade agreements] with Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia, when conditions are right, which will serve as additional building blocks towards a region-to-region free trade agreement," it says.

It also pledges EU help for ASEAN transition to green and digital economies and European support for scientific research and modernisation of healthcare.

The draft declaration does not pull its punches on Myanmar, using language that might not make the final cut.

"We remain deeply concerned over the crisis in Myanmar following the military coup in February 2021. We call for the immediate cessation of violence, start of meaningful and inclusive dialogue," it says.

"We call for the swift creation of an enabling environment for the ... voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable returns of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar," it adds.

It "strongly" condemns North Korea's nuclear missile tests and Taliban human-rights abuses in Afghanistan.

"We call on the Taliban to allow girls' education at all levels, and restore women's right to work and freedom of movement," it says.

And while saying the EU wants to see more Asian students come to Europe under new academic programmes, it also calls for "enhanced joint efforts to curb irregular migration" in future.

China-Russia axis

For some Asia experts, such as Raffaello Pantucci from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, the EU's "more aggressive confrontation narrative" with China is guaranteed to cause annoyance in Beijing.

China's fledgling alliance with Russia "is going to be a defining partnership for both for the foreseeable future", he said.

And any Western efforts to pressure China on Taiwan will also meet with fierce resistance, he predicted.

"Were they to cede anything to foreigners on it, it would be seen as a huge blow to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and its rule," Pantucci said.

"They have been stoking the fires of nationalism for a while now — those flames would likely start to lap at their legitimacy if they were to move on Taiwan because of foreign pressure," he added.

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