Earlier this week I wrote here about the EEAS being ten years old. I shared my impressions from the debate I had had with two former High Representatives, Javier Solana and Federica Mogherini, on the morning of 1 December. In fact I went straight to that debate from having co-chaired the 23rd EU-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting with the Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan – of course virtually as with so many events these days. All EU and ASEAN Member States were represented for what proved to be a particularly fruitful meeting. In fact, the outcome was that we upgraded EU-ASEAN relations to a Strategic Partnership with immediate effect.
As I also wrote earlier, 1 December was a special day for me personally as it marked the end of the first year of my mandate – or the beginning of my second if you like. The ten years of the EEAS have witnessed steady progress in EU-ASEAN relations, sometimes fast, sometimes slower, but at least always with the same goal in mind. In fact, it was ten years ago that ASEAN and its partners changed one of their core treaties – the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia – to allow for accession by regional organisations, as opposed to states. The EU then signed the treaty in 2012 and remains the only regional organisation to have done so. Catherine Ashton co-chaired the EU-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in 2014 which first agreed to work towards the upgrading of the partnership to a strategic one. We opened the EU Mission to ASEAN under a dedicated ambassador in 2016 and during this decade we saw Korea, India, Australia, the US, New Zealand and Russia join China and Japan in being recognised as Strategic Partners of ASEAN. But not the European Union.
There are some important lessons from this process. First, progress can take time, particularly in building a relationship with another regional body with its own strategic outlook and different interests among its own member states. The first steps forward occurred in the decade after the “twin expansions” of the EU and ASEAN which followed the end of the Cold War. So we must seize other opportunities when they arise now.
The increased tension between the US and China has created a new dynamic in the region. ASEAN does not want to “choose sides” and we are not asking it to. But faced with this rivalry it is looking for new pillars to buttress its stability and prosperity. The EU’s reliability and consistency are increasingly valued assets. Those who have most strongly defended them politically in the region – the EU and Japan – are increasingly seen as the most trustworthy partners in terms of supporting the rules-based international order, even if we are not seen as the most powerful players in the region.
There will always be differences between friends, and that is true as well for the EU and ASEAN. Over recent years one of the difficulties we have had in our relationship has concerned palm oil, and its place in our biofuels regime. Those differences have not gone away – indeed there is a dispute settlement process underway at the WTO on the issue. We have, however, agreed to launch the dialogue on issues affecting its production and sustainability which we decided to establish last year. Getting to this point has requited close cooperation between the EEAS and the relevant Commission services dealing with energy and climate issues, as we need for so many aspects of EU foreign policy.
ASEAN and the EU have both come to see that individual points of difference should not cloud our view of the broader strategic interest. Jean Monnet put it better than I can when talking about the establishment of our own Union: “Make men work together; show them that beyond their differences and geographical boundaries, there lies a common interest.” I would say women too. And of course now the European Union and ASEAN as well.
And we have many shared interests: from the immediate such as international vaccine cooperation, rebuilding our economies and carefully reopening our countries, to the overarching imperatives of promoting effective multilateralism and a rules-based international order. Our Southeast Asian partners were grateful for our long-term commitment to the region and its integration through numerous ongoing EU-funded activities, as well as for our “Team Europe” response to the pandemic.
It is important for the EU to extend its security footprint in the region. For the first time an EU High Representative has been invited to the meeting of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus grouping (ASEAN, US, China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand) on 9 December, marking the tenth anniversary of that grouping also.
In this context it is worth stressing that we are ready to expand our engagement in and with Asia. The EEAS and our member states have particular expertise, for example in the area of peacekeeping given our own operations around the world, or maritime and cyber security. We should build on the increasing number of security dialogues and Framework Participation Agreements for participation in CSDP missions with our partners in the Indo-Pacific. We should also increase our collective engagement with ASEAN in multilateral fora, focusing on key EU political priorities such as climate action, the digital transformation, sustainable development and human rights, including labour rights.
Being ASEAN’s Strategic Partner gives the EU a key opportunity to step up our engagement in a growing, dynamic region.