How strategic is the EU-Asia relationship?

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The EU still has the chance to shape the role it wants to play in Asia.

How strategic is the EU-Asia relationship? That is a timely question in light of the recent controversy about EU member states joining the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and one that a group of think tankers and EU representatives tried to answer recently in a workshop ECFR co-hosted in Brussels, as part of its Global Strategy project, together with the Mercator Foundation and Egmont Institute.

The discussion focused mainly on how Europeans should deal with what South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the “Asian paradox”: Asians fear China because of its military power but are simultaneously attracted to it for economic and trade reasons. Although Europeans are well aware of the foreign policy tools they have – hard power tools such as sanctions and soft power tools such as development aid – they are unsure of how to apply them to China. Some of the participants therefore argued that Europeans needed a strategy to figure out how to deal and negotiate with China.

Other participants argued that there was no need for an Asia strategy – after all, there is also no European Latin America or Africa strategy. Instead, the alleged weakness of the EU is not so much the lack of a strategy but simply the lack of a tactical approach to China’s rise. In particular, Europeans needed to agree on what values they should pursue in Asia. In other words, the problem Europeans face in particular in dealing with China, but also with Asia in general, is not about China or Asia but rather about the limits of the Europeans themselves.

We heard that the main issue appears to be the division and lack of coordination between EU member states. The recent rush by Europeans to join the AIIB – China’s alternative to the World Bank – is a case in point. One participant said he was reminded of a 100-metre race in which EU member states were focused on reaching the finish line before each other – the UK even “jumped the gun” by announcing its intention to join the AIIB, immediately followed by France, Germany and Italy. The damage was therefore not because of the AIIB itself but because the West failed to unite.

Thus, even though China is becoming a tougher partner including on investment issues and multilateral rules, the main issue today is not China but rather the failure of Europeans to agree on common initiatives, including in foreign policy areas.

However, there were encouraging signs too. States in Asia increasingly seem to be using economic rather than military means to compete with each other. This apparent shift from geopolitics to geo-economics was viewed as a potentially positive development from a European point of view. Although the EU has not yet been able to take advantage of this shift, Europeans may be better at geo-economics than geopolitics: they are strong actors in trade negotiations, but marginal in strategic security dialogues.

In sum, Europe still has the potential to shape the role it wants to play in Asia. In concrete terms, participants called on the EU to deepen relationships with like-minded democracies in the region – but as a partner and not as a security actor. It should focus on institution building – something that comes naturally to the EU – and re-think how it can help to bolster ASEAN. This might not seem like a huge breakthrough in developing a true EU Asia strategy – but it is certainly better than doing nothing.

 

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