Oct 23, 2012

Europe - The EU is Engaging Asia

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There has been much criticism from think tanks about the EU not engaging sufficiently with Asia. While there may have been some validity to this view last year a quick glance at the visits of EU leaders to Asia in 2012 demonstrates that this criticism is wide of the mark.

On the 9 November, Presidents van Rompuy and Barroso will attend the ASEM summit in Vientiane. The summit will also give them the opportunity to hold a number of bilateral meetings with Asian leaders. While in the region they will separately visit Indonesia, Timor Este, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. Both Presidents visited India, China and South Korea earlier this year for summits.

Catherine Ashton has greatly increased her trips to Asia following the criticism she received for not attending the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) last year. In 2012 she has visited China twice, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Brunei (for the EU-ASEAN ministerial) and Phonm Penh (for the ARF). She also signed a joint statement with Hillary Clinton paving the way for EU-US cooperation in Asia.

EU leaders had hoped to have their annual summit with Japan this year but it has proved difficult to find a date and both sides accept it would be best held when there is progress on the planned FTA negotiations. The internal situation in Japan has also not made it easy to plan a summit. There is a strong possibility of early elections this December.

The EU has opened a delegation in Myanmar and helping the country implement its ambitious reform programme. Framework agreements are being negotiated with Australia and New Zealand. Talks have also started with Pakistan and Afghanistan to deepen their ties with the EU. The EU has also stepped up its presence in the Pacific with David O’Sullivan attending theAnnual Pacific Islands Forum in August.

Meetings are of course not everything. But the EU has also moved forward on a number of policy fronts. On trade, the EU-Korea FTA and Framework Agreements are progressing smoothly with only a few hiccups. Partnership Agreements have been signed with Vietnam and the Philippines and a similar agreement with Mongolia awaits signature. Negotiations for PCAs are well advanced with Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam.

There is parallel progress on free trade negotiations with the above countries. The free trade talks with India are stalled because of internal Indian problems. The Commission is awaiting approval of mandates by the member states to start free trade talks with Japan and an investment treaty with China. The economic crisis has undoubtedly damaged the EU’s image in Asia, as elsewhere in the world, but the EU is still the main export market for most Asian countries. The EU is also the largest provider of development assistance for Asia.

In 2011 Asia provided 33% of EU imports and took 382% of exports which makes Asia the largest trading partner of the EU (42% of total trade). The EU is also a major investor in Asia: in 2010 17% of EU outward investment went to Asia.

On the regional front the EU and ASEAN have agreed an upgradedAction Plan; and the EU has acceded to the treaty on amity and cooperation, a pre-requisite to joining the East Asia summit. There are also moves afoot to send an EU representative to ASEAN.

Apart from Ashton, senior officials in the EEAS have been active in promoting political dialogue with Asian partners. The EU does not have the hard power of the US but its views are increasingly sought by Asian players.

The EU thus cannot be criticised for lack of attention to Asia. Visits are also a two-way street. Brussels has not been swamped by high-level visitors from Asia in the past couple of years.

Where does the EU go from here? It needs to improve its analytical capacity on Asia. It needs to improve its public diplomacy in Asia. And it needs to improve its ability to react quickly to events in the region. The recently revised East Asia policy guidelines provide some useful principles for the EU but now the task is to assess the leverage the EU has to achieve its major objectives and to consider trade-offs with Asian partners.

Many Asian countries were surprised at the award of the Nobel Peace prize to the EU but most commentaries on the award agreed with the nominating committee on the EU’s great contribution to uniting the continent in a peaceful manner. As Asians cope with their own economic and political problems they might look at the old continent for some inspiration. One thing they cannot do is suggest the EU is neglecting Asia.


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