EU-ASEAN Ties Turn 40: What Is the Way Forward?

Over the past 40 years, the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have increasingly cooperated in several fields. Sovinda Po reflects on their relationship and its desirable future.

This year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) takes pride in celebrating its 50th Anniversary under the chairmanship of the Philippines in the same year that the European Union marks the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. In keeping with ASEAN’s commemorative spirit, Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, has called ASEAN ‘a living and breathing miracle’ that deserves a ‘Noble Peace Prize’.

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the start of EU-ASEAN dialogue relations. Current relations are officially based on the 1980 Cooperation Agreement, though relations have gradually tilted towards a strategic partnership. Since establishment, both the EU and ASEAN have evolved together via engagements, economic growth and integration policies, and the time is ripe for a deepening of the relationship.

Discrepancies and similarities between the EU and ASEAN

The integration processes of the EU and ASEAN arose out of different contexts, visions and missions. Ong Keng Yong, former ASEAN Secretary-General remarks, “the two groupings originated from different circumstances and are navigating through different terrains towards different destinations.”

ASEAN strongly adheres to the non-interference principle and sovereignty has to be preserved among member states, whereas the partial transfer of sovereignty to the supranational level among EU member states is a fundamental aspect of the organization. ASEAN has no such institutions like the European Parliament or the European Court of Justice. While ASEAN prefers informality and consensus, strong institutions and legally binding legislation are the key elements for the EU.    

However, common goals on both sides became increasingly visible after the end of the Cold War, when a single market with a free flow of goods, capital, and labor became increasingly important. The EU and ASEAN both boost regional integration between highly diverse member states and further multilateralism in an international rules-based order. Preserving peace, maintaining stability, and accelerating prosperity are the core interests of both sides.

Because of these common objectives, the EU has put different practices aside and actively engages within ASEAN’s three pillars: the ASEAN Political and Security Community, the ASEAN Economic Community, and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.

The EU and the ASEAN Political and Security Community

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), of which the EU is a founding member, enables it to boost and implement its security agenda. However, because none of the EU member states has a military presence in, or alliance with, the region’s countries, the main focus is more on non-traditional security issues than on hard security. The aim of the ARF is to foster constructive dialogue and consultation through confidence building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

At the 2016 ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting in Thailand, the EU and ASEAN agreed to strengthen dialogue and cooperation on maritime security, confidence building and preventive diplomacy, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, cyber security, as well as crisis management. In addition, through the ASEAN Migration and Border Management Program II 2015-2018, EUR 3.4 million has been allocated to support the regional secretariat of the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) risk mitigation initiative, the fight against human trafficking and border management.

Furthermore, freedom of navigation and respect for international law are of significance in order for both sides to cooperate with one another. France, at the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, expressed its intention to coordinate maritime ‘freedom of navigation operations’ together with fellow EU countries and supported the July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which rejected all of China’s claims to the South China Sea. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian posited that ‘if the laws of the sea are not respected in this region, they could also be challenged in the Arctic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea. If we want to contain the risk of conflict, we must defend this right and defend it by ourselves.’  

The EU and the ASEAN Economic Community

Apart from security cooperation, trade remains crucial for the EU as outlined in a 2006 Communication entitled ‘Global Europe: competing in the world’, while economic growth and integration are priorities for ASEAN. It is vital to note that ASEAN as a group is the EU’s third largest trading partner after the US and China. Likewise, the EU has risen to become ASEAN’s second largest trading partner after China. In 2016, EUR 208 billion in bilateral trade in goods and services was recorded and 22% of Southeast Asia’s foreign direct investments came from the EU.

Given the significance of trade, commerce and investments, a huge sum of funds has been allocated under this pillar in order to help ASEAN realize the nuts and bolts of a single market as detailed in the ASEAN Economic Community blueprint. It is worth noting that 57% of the funds for the period 2007-2013 and 50% for the period 2014-2020 are allocated to activities falling under the economic pillar.

However, economic cooperation between the EU and ASEAN has also faced some challenges. For instance, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which is prevalent across Southeast Asia, has considerable economic, environmental and social impacts on the region. These impacts are also heavily felt by the EU, which receives about one-quarter of ASEAN’s total extra-ASEAN fisheries.

The EU and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community

Of the three pillars, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community receives the least attention from the ASEAN Secretariat. However, cooperation between the EU and ASEAN under this pillar has made impressive strides. The focus is mostly on higher education through initiatives such as the SHARE scholarship program, on climate change and on disaster management.

Moreover, the 21st ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting (AEMM) in October 2016 highlighted the importance of strengthening people-to-people exchanges, promoting cooperation in education, raising public awareness of the ASEAN-EU partnership, and encouraging cooperation on the effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. In addition, an ASEAN-EU High Level Dialogue on Sustainable Development Goals was convened in 2017 to generate new ideas and suggestions.    

The Way Forward

Over the course of the last 40 years, an increasingly globalized and interdependent world has led to a deepening and broadening of EU-ASEAN relations. However, there is a lot more to do in order for both groupings to remain engaged with one another.

As for ASEAN, to foster deeper integration, it needs to strengthen its institutions. Greater civil society participation and enhanced legislative power will provide ASEAN with more legitimacy. Addressing a rising China that is asserting its economic and political leadership in the region through territorial claims still remains a big challenge for ASEAN and will determine the limits of ASEAN’s centrality.

As for the EU, the expected demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, as announced by President Donald Trump, will open the doors for other trade agreements. China, which is promoting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), will likely benefit from this situation. Thus, the EU should not miss the opportunity to engage further on the trade front within Southeast Asia. In the security domain, the EU’s security and growth prospects depend on its relations with others and on a rules-based international order. Dialogue on security aspects, both traditional and non-traditional such as crisis management, election observation, maritime disputes, non-proliferation, migration, cybersecurity and preventive diplomacy should be enhanced in order to show that the EU can be taken seriously as a security actor in the region, thereby improving its prospects to join the East Asia Summit.    

Last but not least, deepening and enhancing political, economic and social relations with ASEAN, which shares the EU’s views on multilateralism and free trade, will bring benefits for both sides. The EU and ASEAN need to work together to conclude a ‘strategic partnership’, which embraces all aspects of their relationship, from trade to energy, from climate change to political and security issues, and from human rights to sustainable development. In addition, ASEAN should advance the EU’s request for active participation in the East Asia Summit, whose primary objective is to discuss the major internal, but also external political, economic and security issues of the region.

Sovinda Po is a graduate student in International Relations at the School of Advanced International and Area Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai. His articles have appeared in The Diplomat, East Asia Forum, IPP Review, New Mandala, and Australian Institute of International Affairs.

Photo by Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken