The stock of ASEAN is rising. Political reform is underway in Myanmar, whose military-ruled government had alienated ASEAN from the Western sphere since it was accorded entry into the organization in 1997 (ASEAN’s two-tracked strategy of internal pressure for reform in the military junta all while staving off Western criticisms seems to have finally yielded results). The plan for ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 is looking up, albeit slowly, after the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta last year. Regional integration in the mainland of Southeast Asia is giving results: ASEAN’s approach to sustainable development in the area (especially with regards to the Mekong River Basin) has cultivated significant and steady economic growth in the midst of the worldwide economic crisis.
The United States has not been blind to these subtle changes. In fact, the US has brazenly declared this the ‘Asia Pacific Century’. And when they say Asia, the White House certainly does not limit its sights on China and India. Since the start of the New Year, President Obama has hosted an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hawaii, taken up America’s sea at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali, and sent US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma on a mission to assess moves towards democracy in that country. Last year, Washington sent a special envoy to Jakarta as the first resident US ambassador to ASEAN, following in the footsteps of the Japanese, who appointed their permanent ambassador in 2010. Trade wise, America has opened negotiations for plans for a Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade liberalization.
And in the midst of this outpouring of love for ASEAN, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, skipped the second ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) for the second year running. The ARF is the center platform for discussions on pan-Asian security issues, and Ashton’s decision has lead the Asians to put Europe’s request to join the EAS – the region’s prime security club, which in addition to leading Asian nations includes all the EU’s strategic partners, US and Russia – on hold until they deem Europe is ready for serious discussion about security. EU-Asia security links are practically non-existent, apart from the Aceh Monitoring Mission in 2005-2006 (which, as we can attest to in a world with a rapidly shortening relevant timeframe, is naught but a hazy and rose-tinted reminiscence).
But, there is still hope for Europe.
Economic ties with the ASEAN market continue to grow. The EU is amongst ASEAN’s three largest export markets, and one of the largest sources of ASEAN imports. The eurozone crisis has made Europe a magnet for Asian investors. A recent survey (as summarized in the referenced papers listed below) determined that “45% of businesses in Asia are either currently doing or looking to make strategic acquisitions in Europe in the next 12 months, compared with just 14% in Middle East and 7% in North America”.
What is imperative is that the senior officials roaming the halls of the EU in Brussels realize that while trade and economic ties certainly bind and foster inter-dependence, Europe needs to engage more strongly with South Asian countries on foreign policy and security questions. A stronger Europe-Asia political partnership is essential to coordinate joint action and tackled the key 21st century challenges that face the world as a whole.
President Obama’s trip early this year across the Asian continent does seem to have roused Europe. EU-ASEAN dialogue was re-opened this April after a dry-spell that dated back to 2007 and the chiefly economic focused Nuremberg Declaration on an EU-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership (note that the use of ‘chiefly’ here borders on the polite: the Nuremberg Declaration, while intended as a forum to address inter-related challenges of climate change, energy security, and economic cooperation, was essentially a re-drafting of TREATI, the Trans Regional EU-ASEAN Trade Initiative). The April EU-ASEAN gathering of foreign ministers in Brunei whispers of progress: in a press release in the Borneo Bulletin, an EU representative shared that the partnership of both sides will be strengthened with the agreement of an ambitious EU-ASEAN Plan of Action that will take place from 2013 to 2017.
In the meantime, as ASEAN approaches its 45th anniversary, and the momentum of Rising Asia is not about to stop for a sitting Europe.