THE JAKARTA POST – Simone Galimberti Kathmandu ● Fri, May 7, 2021
This article was published in thejakartapost.com with the title “The EU comes to the Indo Pacific region”. Click to read: https://www.thejakartapost.com/academia/2021/05/07/the-eu-comes-to-the-indo-pacific-region.html.
If we really want ASEAN to emerge stronger from the ongoing crises caused by the pandemic, then the regional bloc is in need of new allies and the EU is one of them.
It can really become a win-win situation as the latter is trying to expand its global outreach while the former is in need of resources, not only financial but also in the form of new ideas and in terms of a new level of ambition in building a strong regional institution, something with which the Europeans could certainly help.
The end of last year saw the upgrading of the relationship between the two blocs that now consider each other strategic partners.
This new form of cooperation is significant because it has so much potential for development not only at a political level with more structured dialogue and interactions among leaders but also from a technical point of view where the technical agencies of both organizations can work together, undertaking new joint research projects for example.
It is also exciting from the point of view of the people-to-people cooperation with more interactions among youth.
Just recently, former European Commission president and former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, a true European statesman, chaired together with ASEAN secretary-general Dato Lim Jock Hoi the first Youth Conference on ASEAN-Italy: A Partnership for Development.
Although this was a program outside of the official purview of the EU institutional framework, it is an example of the endless opportunities that people-to-people connections can bring at the bilateral and multilateral levels.
In addition, now the Europeans are stepping up with the approval of a new strategy, the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific that can be read as a strong statement toward multilateralism and interregional cooperation.
Part a common security and defense approach to the region, part a desire to promote better connectivity, trade and innovation research, the document lays out ambitious goals for a European Union that has always lacked a coherent approach to the Asia Pacific region.
Complementary to the EU Maritime Security Strategy Action Plan, the new Indo-Pacific strategy aims, among other things, “to cooperate with partners’ navies, and build their capacities where relevant, to establish comprehensive monitoring of maritime security and freedom of navigation, according to international law, in particular UNCLOS, and taking action to ensure environmental security in the area”.
Although China was undoubtedly an overarching element of consideration, analysis and to some extent of concerns that guided the drafting, the ambition of the strategy goes well beyond trying to constrain Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Clearly the EU and its member states, the so-called Team Europe, do not have the prowess to compete militarily against China in far and remote waters at the moment, but nevertheless it is an important step from the Europeans, sending a clear message to their counterparts in the South East Asia that they won’t be alone if the situation deteriorates. Geopolitically and militarily, we are going to have more opportunities for exchanges of view among the Europeans and their counterparts in the region and this is a significant opportunity for the ASEAN countries as well to deepen new relationships beyond their traditional defense partners.
Yet we should not think of this new document just in terms of its security dimensions and instead we should look at it as a blueprint for a much stronger political engagement of the EU in the Asia-Pacific region.
With trade, sustainability is also going to be big in the new European approach and, for example, the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific also refers to green investments and potential mobilization of the European Fund for Sustainable Development Plus that, if leveraged in ASEAN, could have a transformative impact to ensure the region gets closer to a post-pandemic reconstruction better positioned to achieve the Agenda 2030.
While the militaries of the ASEAN countries (minus the junta in power now in Myanmar that should be ostracized by the entire world and the new sanctions just imposed by the EU on the generals might hopefully help here) will definitely draw comparative notes between their own ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and the new EU Indo-Pacific strategy, the Europeans want to do much more and they are right in this.
More interesting “nitty-gritty” will come by September 2021 when the European Commission and the High Representative for External Affairs will present a longer and more detailed Joint Communication on the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
ASEAN would certainly be a central feature of this upcoming detailed plan and the hope is that Europeans will really push for something transformative and symbolically powerful.
Let’s be clear: It is essential to deal with Chinese vessels but the true game with China will be won if ASEAN comes closer together politically and through people-to-people relationships. To start with, what about investing in a bold university exchange scheme modelled after the Erasmus program?
In addition, the EU should also have a special track of essential partnerships with the “free” nations of ASEAN, countries founded on democratic values and on the full respect of human rights.
These are the countries that should be fully encouraged to pursue a “values”-based regional integration. The area of human rights is an area in which the EU now has a wide array of new instruments at its disposal to promote its global outreach without compromising on its core principles.
Tools like the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024, the European Democracy Action Plan and the new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Mechanism should be paramount to any engagement in the region.
This new decade might foresee a stronger EU in the region that will act not as a bossy big brother but as a real partner, defending its core interests but also advancing those of a free and more democratic Asia-Pacific.
*** The author is a writer on social inclusion, youth development, regional integration and the SDGs in the context of Southeast Asia.