ASEAN at 45 is a success.
This statement was repeated incessantly throughout the ‘ASEAN at 45’ Summit organized by the Friends of Europe. The ASEAN officials quoted great tales of progress – regional stability; political reform and development; and economic growth despite the world crisis – and the European officials were more than eager to agree. However, the state of relations between the EU and ASEAN did not correlate with this optimistic agreement. Where the European side hailed EU-ASEAN relations as a working accomplishment of step-by-step partnership building - starting at the national level and building towards cooperation with the region as whole -, the Asian side clearly considers EU efforts lacking.
ASEAN’s growth as a regional actor in Southeast Asia has certainly been a success story. Asia is no longer just China, Japan and Korea. In both a political and economic sense, the nations of Southeast Asia, the so-termed Rising Asia, have become major strategic players in both Asia and the world. Recent political reforms in Myanmar, as well as settlement of border disputes among the founding members of ASEAN, have achieved regional stability and security in Rising Asia (notwithstanding small disagreements between the states, which in itself is a demonstration of regional commitment towards political stability and development). ASEAN is in the driver’s seat of pan-Asian integration.
Within the ASEAN member nations, integration is market driven and output oriented. The challenges facing ASEAN are clearly identified and appear to be systematically dealt with within the organization’s framework. Most talked about these are: the formation ASEAN community along the three pillars of the established ASEAN Charter; the building of extensive ICT and infrastructure to raise connectivity; a focus on innovation and, in this regard, a fostering of a tradition of research and higher education, modeled after the South Korean framework; and increased discussion on the pressing social issues in civil society, notably human rights, corruption, and migrant workers. At a national level, the ASEAN states show commitment towards implementing projects to meet ambitious targets prioritized by the region.
The EU as a whole has not capitalized on the growth of opportunity in the ASEAN region. While trade and economic relations between the two regions are extensive, these are characterized as bilateral agreements that do not overflow into the realms of security or political collaboration on global issues. The Chief Operating Officer of the European External Action Service maintains that Europe has “always understood the importance of the [ASEAN] region as whole”. But apart from a series of loosely stated diplomatic niceties – assurances that the EU supports ASEAN efforts in peaceful negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as initiatives for sustainable development of infrastructure – the EU does not commit to the region.
Of notable importance is the statement made by EU Commissioner for Trade, promising an EU-ASEAN free trade agreement by 2015. That this statement came off as ambitious and surprising is a reflection of the shallow ties between the two institutions. At this point, it is important to mention the recent progress made in EU-ASEAN relations. Officials have met for the ASEAN-EU Business Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to explore business and investment opportunities. In late-April, ASEAN-EU foreign ministers adopted a plan for reopening dialogue to enhance, intensify, and strengthen mutual cooperation. The aims and objectives of the two, however, do not seem to coincide.
The ‘ASEAN at 45’ Summit itself was split into two panel discussions, one focusing inwards at ASEAN regional integration, and the other examining ASEAN’s global outreach. Overall, the conference was well managed and the panel discussion was not afraid to broach sticky subjects, political reform in Myanmar and territorial disputes both within the borders of ASEAN and in the South China Sea, to name two. However, the symbolism of hosting the conference in a fake library, stocked with weathered encyclopedias as props, was not lost.With just a cursory glance across the room, it was easy to see the great imbalance: the ratio of Asian visitors to the EU bureaucrats of Brussels was overwhelming. To add to this, while the Asian representatives tabulated amongst themselves an impressive and distinguished list of officials – the Managing Director General of the Asian Development Bank, the Deputy Governor of Bank Indonesia, representatives from ASEAN High-Level Task Forces, etc. -, the European attendance was composed predominantly of interns. Then, take into account the fact that these leaders of ASEAN had to travel long flights and commit a substantial chunk of their time in order to attend this conference, and the disparity in interest and commitment to an enhanced partnership is starkly thrown into relief.
Europe cannot hope to gain the trust and working relationship it seeks with ASEAN by saying a few words and promising the moon.
True, the European officials who did partake in the panel discussion showed a serious commitment and belief in ASEAN’s importance. The member states of the EU are extensively involved bilaterally with the ASEAN Secretariat, and the Italian Foreign Minister has in the last two months visited five of the ASEAN member nations. Business interests have also already integrated themselves into the beginning stages of infrastructure development. Europe is present in Southeast Asia, and ready to establish stronger ties.
The general feeling of the conference, however, was disappointing. Another summit in a long list of failed meetings. We should not be surprised though. The EU Commissioner for Trade, the highest EU official present at the conference, cannot hope to gain any grounds for negotiation if he leaves the summit directly after saying a few opening words. ASEAN came to Europe, prepared to talk, but where does it leave us if Europe is not prepared to listen?