Taking a major leap forward in their relationship, the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are convening their first-ever summit on December 14 in Brussels. Even though Senior government officials from Asean and EU member States, as well as heads of the Asean Secretariat and European Commission, have all been meeting regularly. However, this would be the first time for heads of government from both sides to meet in such a format. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council and Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, will co-chair the EU-Asean commemorative summit. From Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim will not be participating in the deliberations as he is dealing with domestic instability and the annual budget.
The salience of the Summit lies not only in the fact that this is the first-ever such a rendezvous between Asean and the EU but is also a commemorative event to mark the sapphire anniversary of the EU-Asean relationship which was established way back in 1977 when both these regional organisations had not achieved their fullest forms. What’s more: The two sides are also commemorating the second anniversary of their strategic partnership. The EU-Asean relations have crossed several milestones over the past four-and-a-half decades. With the aim to give a fillip to their inter-regional cooperation, the EU established a diplomatic mission to Asean and appointed its first EU ambassador to Asean on August 8, 2015, which happens to be Asean Day. The 23rd Asean-EU Ministerial Meeting (AEMM) which was held on December 1, 2020, elevated the EU-Asean Dialogue Partnership to a Strategic Partnership. While the strategic components of this strategic partnership are yet to be fully deciphered, it must also be acknowledged that a strategic partnership between two regional organisations is not as bilateral as it seems.
That said, Jakarta and Brussels are not oblivious to their respective strategic interests and concerns. The emerging Indo-Pacific order, for one, has certainly infused a sense of urgency in both of them albeit in varying degrees among the constituent members. In 2021, the EU acknowledged the centrality of Asean in EU Strategy for Indo-Pacific Cooperation. The plan outlines the EU’s commitments to advancing peace, security, prosperity, and sustainable development in the region in accordance with the values of democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and international law.
Josep Borrell, vice president of the European Commission and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy visited the Asean Secretariat in 2021. This high-level visit is a part of the EU-Asean Strategic Partnership initiative, which is built on similar interests and values as well as a shared desire to work together to address global challenges.
During a ministerial meeting with Asean counterparts on August 4, 2022, Borrell stated that his organisation is committed to participating in the region and views Asean as a “strategic partner.” A new EU-Asean Plan of Action was established at this summit, outlining a wide range of topics earmarked for closer cooperation over the following five years (2023–2027), including pandemic recovery, trade, rules-based and sustainable connectivity climate change, research, and security. In light of these factors, Asean seem significant to Europe in terms of economy, diplomacy, and security.
The upcoming summit is a sign that the two blocs are upscaling their strategic partnership amidst spiralling strategic frictions in Asia. With the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, and difficulties arising out of the lack of solid region-wide Asean support to Europe, the EU has sensed that there are gaps in its strategic communication, partly owing to an incessant preference for diplomacy and development over defence and deterrence-building, which needs to be addressed urgently. The EU is showing renewed interest in having a stronger presence in the region – the primary aim of which seems to secure its own respectable presence as a responsible stakeholder in preserving a rules-based Indo-Pacific order.
It is anticipated that security-related topics would dominate the summit’s discussions, and the EU will work to explain Southeast Asian nations’ stances on the Ukraine crisis. With the exception of Singapore (and the Philippines), which has joined the international campaign of sanctions on Russia, most Southeast Asian countries have maintained their neutral stance on the conflict despite facing the wrath of the war’s economic effects in varying degrees.
Priority areas of the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific are sustainable and inclusive prosperity, ocean governance, connectivity, human security, green transition, digital governance and partnerships, and security and defence.
Besides discussing global security and trade matters, the escalating Myanmar crisis will be a crucial issue for both blocs to deliberate upon. Senior GeneralMin Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s leader is unlikely to attend the summit due to his government’s strained relations with the Asean and EU blocs.
On the trade front, the EU-Asean trade crossed the US $250-billion-mark last year. Asean is one of the major trading partners for the EU combining all 10 members of Asean. The EU has free trade agreements in force with Singapore and Vietnam and working on similar negotiations with Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand. Despite exploring possibilities of an FTA with the entire bloc, the EU has imposed economic sanctions on Cambodia and Myanmar due to human rights violations.
At the forthcoming summit, the EU and Asean might also wish to work towards developing robust and efficient regional and inter-regional supply chains. The pandemic hampered imports for medical products and automobile components for the EU, which is expected to provide infrastructure assistance and economic cooperation agreements for Asean countries. An expanded free trade network will diversify supply chains and lessen dependence on resource-rich powers like Russia.
The EU and Asean are expected to work more closely together to prevent exports of sensitive technology that may be used for military purposes as well as to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. These initiatives are based on the Union’s 2021 Indo-Pacific agenda.
The EU-Asean ties are at the cusp of a monumental change. EU has never been this keen to partner with Asean and its members on so many counts together. EU’s strongest ever interest in working with Asean is an opportunity in overalls for both. To work with the EU for greater gains, Asean has to keep its promises while trying to catch up with the EU in upskilling its economies and human resources.