Written by Jim Maher (European Parliament in ASEAN)
With the world’s two most integrated regional organisations – ASEAN and the EU – this year celebrating 45 years of diplomatic relations, an EPRS online roundtable on 1 December 2022 delved into the real meaning of the ‘strategic partnership’ between the two blocs. Organised jointly with the European Parliament in ASEAN, the exchange also looked towards the next steps in the EU’s engagement with Southeast Asia.
‘Rich and dynamic’ is how European Parliament Vice-President Heidi Hautala (Greens/EFA, Finland) described the current state of EU-ASEAN relations in keynote remarks at the start of the online roundtable, moderated by Elena Lazarou of EPRS. Citing green and digital projects as examples, the Vice-President noted the potential for the EU and ASEAN to ‘mutually benefit from alignment in several important policy areas’.
‘A variation in speed’
On trade, Ms Hautala remarked that the European Union is ASEAN’s third largest trading partner and the second largest source of foreign direct investment. While she noted ‘a variation in speed’ when it comes to trade relations – free trade agreements already in place with Singapore and Vietnam, negotiations with Indonesia underway, and other countries under the Everything But Arms scheme – the region as a whole is ‘moving in the same direction, and the vision for the future is an EU-ASEAN regional FTA’.
Antoine Ripoll of the European Parliament in ASEAN reflected on the substantial progress ASEAN has made in the past four and a half decades, and on the bloc’s role at the core of the Indo-Pacific. Outlining some of the challenges faced by the 10-nation body, he cited security issues (particularly in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait), and economic uncertainties due to existing trade tensions. Charmaine Willoughby of De La Salle University in the Philippines added Myanmar as ‘the glaring issue’, along with food security, and ‘grey-zone issues’ such as information manipulation.
On maritime security specifically, Willoughby highlighted the importance of the new Marcos administration leveraging the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration award on the South China Sea, which was heavily in favour of the Philippines. She noted that freedom of navigation is at stake and that ‘even if the South China Sea is half a world away from Brussels, it remains a critical issue’.
‘A divergence in threat perceptions’
‘We need to fight the battle the way they are fighting it: through economics’ argued Willoughby on the wider issue of countering an increasingly assertive China. Hervé Lemahieu of the Lowy Institute spoke meanwhile of ‘a divergence in threat perceptions’ between many Southeast Asian countries and the West. While for the United States and its Quad partners, it is China’s economic and military power – and willingness to use both in coercive ways – that pose the greatest threat to regional security, in many ASEAN capitals the view is that US-China competition is the main driver of regional instability, he noted.
Mr Lemahieu, Director of Research at the Sydney-based think tank, added that a cohesive ASEAN at the centre of the Indo-Pacific would be ‘a stronger bulwark against Chinese domination than a region divided between those aligned with Washington and Beijing’. ‘A simplistic, binary choice’ between the West and China is, in any case, not one that the countries of Southeast Asia want to make, Shada Islam of the New Horizons Project added.
Another issue hanging over Southeast Asia is that of Myanmar. It has now been over 18 months since ASEAN leaders agreed on a ‘five-point consensus’ to end the chaos in the country following the February 2021 coup d’état. The junta’s commitment to implementing that consensus has been ‘inexistent’, Vice-President Heidi Hautala noted, expressing her hope that the incoming Indonesian ASEAN chairmanship will make real a commitment by ASEAN leaders in November for the bloc ‘to engage all stakeholders’. Ms Hautala stressed that this should include the National Unity Government, which is recognised by the European Parliament as the legitimate representative of the Burmese people’s democratic wishes.
Myanmar junta ‘incredibly impervious to external influence’
Also raising the issue of Myanmar was Hervé Lemahieu, who warned that ‘we need to see this as a generational process rather than something that will be resolved in two years’. The Yangon-raised policy analyst added that those who propose an alternative to the ASEAN approach on the crisis risk overestimating the sway that any external party has on the junta. ‘It seems as if the generals are incredibly impervious to external influence,’ he underlined.
Citing the wide variety of political systems in Southeast Asia, Mr Lemahieu suggested that instead of pushing its ASEAN partners to weigh in on the democratisation of Myanmar, Europe should use the narrative of the coup as a threat to stability that risks becoming ‘a proxy conflict between great powers’. Similarly, on Ukraine, he suggested that, in its dialogue with ASEAN countries, the EU should frame Russia’s aggression as ‘a direct attack on the UN charter’ rather than as something, which pits democracies against authoritarian systems.
Sharing a ‘glass half full’ view on ASEAN, Mr Lemahieu noted that while the bloc brings together ‘an unlikely medley of countries’, its member states are ‘increasingly on the same page when it comes to geopolitical rivalry’. He noted ASEAN’s potential to become ‘a distinctive third pole in the competition between the world’s superpowers’, and added that ‘the EU has come a long way in adjusting its posture and tone’ towards the bloc.
Moving on from ‘regionalism snobbery’
A number of speakers reflected on the importance of a partnership of equals. Vice-President Hautala cautioned against ‘a patronising approach’ from the EU. Shada Islam welcomed the fact that the EU appears to have moved on from ‘regionalism snobbery’, and that there is an acceptance that ASEAN does not need to be a mirror image of the EU. Charmaine Willoughby noted that while the two blocs have different origins and current circumstances, there are underlying similarities, including a shared commitment to multilateralism and adherence to the rules-based international order.
On the wider role of the EU in the region, Hervé Lemahieu cautioned against trying to emulate the United States’ policy: ‘The fact is Europe is not considered as a military heavyweight in the region. […] Where Europe does have the comparative advantage is on economics and trade’. He added that, with its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the United States has ‘largely abdicated the space’.
On the issue of American involvement, Ulrich Jochheim of EPRS echoed Mr Lemahieu’s assessment of the recently announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as ‘very weak’, and suggested that, given domestic political constraints, it is unlikely that the Biden administration would be able to get ‘any serious trade deal’ through Congress.
‘Fight for our values but do it wisely’
Shada Islam noted the importance of ‘accompanying’ countries in making reforms rather than imposing them. Otherwise, ‘we risk losing our value as a trading partner’. Citing the carbon border adjustment mechanism as an example, she noted there is ‘a real danger that we raise our standards so high that countries just can’t meet them’. ‘We need to fight for our values through trade but do it wisely,’ she concluded.
Ms Islam, a Brussels-based commentator, also expressed hope that trade negotiations with Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand be revived, and a free trade agreement concluded with Indonesia by 2024. She also called for intensified EU collaboration with ASEAN on issues such as connectivity and maritime security, and for sectoral agreements in the digital and green fields.
In terms of recent progress in EU-ASEAN relations, Ulrich Jochheim highlighted the ‘very pragmatic but very useful’ Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement, which replaces more than 140 bilateral agreements. He also noted there will be a breadth of cooperation in light of the new EU-ASEAN plan of action for 2023‑2027.
Antoine Ripoll spoke of the importance of ensuring the EU-ASEAN strategic partnership makes a real difference in the lives of young people, while Charmaine Willoughby mentioned the crucial role of ‘track 1.5 and track 2 discussions’. To ensure ‘a constant to and fro’, Shada Islam proposed that existing contacts between young Europeans and young Southeast Asians – such as the Young Leaders Forum – be institutionalised. Vice-President Heidi Hautala highlighted the European Parliament’s commitment to boosting parliamentary links with ASEAN and its ultimate goal of establishing an inter-parliamentary assembly.