Guest Column

Asean Must Make the EU a Strategic Partner

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 22 January 2019

Asean can be vicious, as relations with the European Union demonstrate. At the Chiang Mai retreat last week, the official status of the EU as a new strategic dialogue partner was one of the prominent issues taken up by Asean foreign ministers. The press statement issued by the chair simply said that the EU’s status, which Asean has agreed in principle, is still subject “to further details and time to be worked out”. In a nutshell, it is still in limbo.

Deep down, quite a few Asean members are resentful over the EU’s condescending attitude toward them, whether it has been over trade or human rights issues. “The EU loves to make Asean furious, if not belittle us,” commented one diplomat whose country objected to granting the EU elevated status without a strong commitment to respect “the Asean way” in return.

Asean foreign ministers are meeting with their EU counterparts in Brussels early this week to discuss bilateral relations. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini will co-chair the one-day meeting with Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Asean and the EU will discuss cooperation on climate change and strengthening the rules-based multilateral system, among other things.

The bone of contention in Chiang Mai was the status of the strategic partnership with the EU. In Singapore in November, Asean leaders actually agreed in principle to make Russia and the EU the 8th and 9th strategic partners of the Southeast Asian bloc, respectively. Earlier, in the case of the EU, Cambodia held up the decision, objecting to Brussels’ constant threats to sever its tax-free trade status, known as the “Everything But Arms” arrangement. However, for Russia, it was the opposite. Asean members quickly reached consensus at the senior level. Russian President Vladimir Putin also made a rare appearance at the 13th East Asia Summit. Putin said he had intended to raise the status of Russia’s strategic partnership with Asean leaders directly if the bloc remained recalcitrant.

At the special 20th anniversary commemorative summit in the Russian city of Sochi in May 2016, Russia gave Asean leaders the red carpet treatment with the pomp and ceremony they deserved. But Moscow was disappointed because Asean continued to view Russia as a junior partner, even though it is one of the world’s great powers, affecting peace and security around the world, especially in the Middle East. For the record, the US was made the bloc’s 7th strategic partner just a few months ahead of the special summit in Sunnylands, California, in February 2016.

In addition, Indonesia and Malaysia feel strongly that the EU has a displeasing attitude toward Asean, imposing its values and standards on them. The two palm oil exporters believe that some of the criteria for agricultural products demanded by the EU are discriminatory and unfair.

Fortunately, Thailand, which has also suffered greatly over the past four years over its domestic politics and the illegal fishing issue, has overcome several hurdles erected by its European partners. It would be nice if the EU could consult with Asean members before setting these criteria in the future, otherwise it could lead to disputes that dampen other important cooperation agreements. Indeed, Thailand sacrificed blood, sweat and tears to overcome the stringent criteria outlined by the EU, which would not have been possible without its military rulers’ vigorous use of the much-condemned Section 44.

As a coordinator of Asean-EU relations and the Asean member that has the most advanced ties with the EU, Singapore managed to put on a brave face vis-à-vis the EU in convincing its Asean colleagues to back the strategic partner proposal. Amid rising protectionism and a trade war, as well as the EU’s new strategic thinking as a great power-balancer in a region dominated by the US-China rivalry, Asean can no longer drag its feet with the EU on this issue. The EU needs new friends outside the transatlantic alliance and supporters of free trade and globalization. Asean needs the EU to ensure that no major power can exercise hegemony in the region.

It is hoped that in Brussels, EU leaders will be more realistic in assessing the intrinsic value of Asean—both its individual members and as a whole. Self-reflection among EU members would also help the bureaucrats and politicians working for Brussels to understand better the complexities of the challenges facing Asean. The EU has to exhibit a new attitude; otherwise cooperation will be sluggish.

As the current Asean chair, Thailand’s theme of “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability” resonates with fellow Asean members, as they all face the dilemma of trying to stay on track with sustainable economic development. This is an area where the EU can help Asean to further increase the bloc’s capacity to address protectionism and issues endangering the environment.

In the weeks ahead, Thailand is writing to all Asean colleagues handling environmental issues to obtain their input on climate change. The Asean chair is planning to issue a joint statement on climate change ahead of the next summit. In 2017, Asean and the EU issued a powerful joint statement pledging to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, much to the chagrin of Washington, which unilaterally withdrew from the global accord it helped shape.

As the Asean chair, Thailand is planning to hold a meeting of global leaders, particularly those from the Security Council members, later in the year.

Both the French and UK leaders have agreed to attend the pre-event ahead of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in early November, joining their council counterparts from the US, China and Russia, which are EAS members. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to participate as well. European Council President Donald Tusk, who attended the EAS luncheon meeting in Manila back in 2017, will also be invited.

Therefore, elevating the EU as a new strategic partner now is a must to pave the way for a much-needed rejuvenation of cooperation. The time has come for the EU and Asean to work on a free trade arrangement. Look around: Four years after the conclusion of the Singapore-EU free-trade accord, it is not yet implemented and effective. The EU is not so enthusiastic either about Vietnam’s current negotiations, because of labor standards. It must be noted here that these are the same labor standards approved by the US and members of the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To move ahead, the EU should set up working groups to deal with specific issues bilaterally with Asean members, be it human rights or the environment. That way, overall Asean-EU relations will not be held captive as they have in the past.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist and expert on regional affairs. This column first appeared in The Bangkok Post.