Why the EU (still) finds it hard to be taken seriously in Asia

Ashton trying

The EU has just requested, and, for the second time, been refused membership of the East Asia Summit (EAS). When you think of it from the perspective of the Asian nations, this is understandable. Not having much about it that is geographically Asian, it has to earn a place at the table. It seems to be trying. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Cathy Ashton has talked about this as her ‘Asian Semester‘, and has been making more trips to the region. Since early in 2012, there has been increasing talk of a European Pivot.

So while the EU gets points for trying, it may not be trying hard enough to be taken seriously as a player in the region. I suggest this has something to do with being absent on security issues, and soft on geo-strategic integrity. If the current ambition is to make a real breakthrough in terms of being taken seriously and invited to the top table, the EU may have to consider creative ways to work around a few fundemental problems:

1. Militarily absent. The EU and its members’ military presence and capability in Asia is not just insignificant, it is on track to shrink rather than increase. EU Members are mostly cutting their defence budgets. The other fundamental problem is that military action under the EU Common Foreign & Security Policy or Common Security & Defense Policy is limited to ‘crisis management’ missions & operations, which are more like UN Peacekeeping operations or developmental activities than the kind of coalition operations that could tempt potential allies or intimidate potential antagonists. This is unlikely to change as long as Europeans prefer to protect and pursue their security interests largely (i) through national military strategy and membership of NATO (ii) on the cheap.

2. EU- the non-USA? Here’s a paradox. Being an alternative to the USA is perhaps the single thing most likely to make the EU interesting to Asian partners as an actor in the security and geo-political process. However, EU member states are mostly craven US-followers, and would never dare allow the EU to take a position that was distinct, let alone at odds with that taken in Washington. Not only is the EU unable to tempt potential allies by offering to balance against the US, worse, it will defer to the US to take big initiatives, so will lose out on the chance to seize opportunities (like opening to Myanmar, standing up for international law as the arbiter of disputes in the South and East China Seas, etc.)

3. When I call Europe, who answers? That same old question of Kissinger’s – who speaks for Europe? Or, as one commentator put it: ‘who will be Mr. or Mrs. Europe?’ Invite the EU to the East Asian Summit and what do you get? Ashton, Barroso and van Rompuy (as in the European set-up for the G20), ‘tailgated by the still-functioning rotating Presidency?’. This is a symptom of the deeper problem of dividing trade policy, aid policy and security policy across separate arms of the Brussels bureaucracy, which undermines claims to have a foreign and security ‘strategy’.

What to do?

1. Presence is relevance: show the flag with some military deployments to the region. Maybe step up participation in some of the joint exercises.

2. Show value. As well as knocking on the EAS door, do something useful in the one security forum Europe is a member of – the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Work with ASEAN members on Preventive Diplomacy and Confidence Building Mechanisms. Get more active in the working groups on peacekeeping. If the ARF is not the liveliest of fora, then don’t passively accept this – try to get creative, show leadership and propose some ways of revitalizing it.

Michael Auslin had a few ideas earlier in 2012 when he spied “Europe’s Coming Asia Pivot“:

“European air forces and navies could offer their expertise to nations like Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, all of which are exploring larger regional roles. Similarly, Europe is well-placed to offer human rights education to militaries throughout the region. Such cooperation can build strong political relationships for the future. Europe has largely left the sphere of politics in Asia to the Americans, playing almost no role in the various multilateral forums that are emerging in the region. There is also a great deal of help that European nations can give on building civil society—grassroots political organizations, student exchange groups, think tanks, and the like—in Asia.”

3. Get strategic. (a) Harness the unilateral efforts of Member States such as the UK and Germany, who have made big efforts recently with respect to security and working with ASEAN, respectively. Italy has its own Asian pivot too. The more individual nations in the EU do bilaterally with Asian nations and organizations, the more it puts the EU’s efforts into the shade. Try to find ways of leveraging these efforts and contributing value from the Brussels institutions.  (b) Fine to have a ‘strategic partnership’ with China (though this promises more than it delivers), and one with Japan (lookng forward to that re-boot), but this is still a bit geographically unbalanced. Step up attention to ASEAN. They are a growing part of the region’s economy and military power – in both absolute and relative terms. Maybe couple this with a more focused strategy towards a few key members, beginning with Indonesia.

4. Be bold. With Washington’s pivot in hyperactive overdrive after Obama’s re-election, the opportunities for doing something distinctive in the region are diminishing by the day. What’s left? North Korea. Get in there. It won’t be easy but even if it doesn’t work, it would at least show willing.

In conclusion, the EU should keep trying. But don’t expect something for nothing.

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4 responses to “Why the EU (still) finds it hard to be taken seriously in Asia

  1. Pingback: What NATO Must Do After ISAF- CIMSECCenter for International Maritime Security

  2. Pingback: European Maritime Security StrategyCenter for International Maritime Security

  3. Pingback: What Should be in EU’s New Maritime Security Strategy | Offiziere.ch

  4. Pingback: What Should be in EU’s New Maritime Security Strategy — Phantom Report

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