Europe’s Asian Summer: choosing alignment with America over independence?

The European External Action Service has dubbed 2012 “The EU in Asia year” – so, with the main summits and visits behind us, what have we learned so far?

Nicola Casarini put his finger on the big strategic question facing Europe in a recent Chaillot paper published by ISS in September 2012:

“EU policy makers need to tackle the following question: does it remain in the longterm interest of the EU to be perceived as being closely aligned with the US in the Asia Pacific and renouncing the chance for its distinctive – and more neutral – voice to be heard?”

Casarini advocates a change in direction for the EU, towards a neutral position on the South China Sea dispute, which would allow the EU to take a mediation role. He puts this into a broader context in which Europe and China share an interest in a multi-polar world order, implicitly against Washington’s preference for a prolongation of the unipolar moment it has enjoyed after the Cold War ended.

In this blogger’s view, events over the summer have confirmed the emergence of a US-leaning position in the EU policy towards Asia. Is the EU foregoing the ambition and the advantages of independence and simply aligning with the US and its treaty allies to counter China? Signs that this may be happening can be seen in three policy moves between June and September:

(1) the 2012 Guidelines on EU foreign and security policy in E. Asia;

- approach to security includes “the development and consolidation of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”

- “it is clear that the current trade imbalance between China and the EU is not sustainable in the longer term”.

- cites “China’s economic development, more active diplomacy, and increasing (and untransparent) defence expenditure”, repeating later that this lack of transparency is something to be worked on.

- “The US’s security commitments to Japan, the Republic of Korea and Taiwan as well as certain ASEAN countries, and the associated presence of US forces in the region, give the US a distinct perspective on the region’s security challenges, and makes the US an important contributor to regional stability. It is important that the EU remains sensitive to this. Given the great importance of transatlantic relations, the EU has a strong interest in partnership and cooperation with the US on foreign and security policy challenges related to East Asia.”

- The EU should “step up its work in particular with China, stressing the need for progress towards rule of law, personal freedoms, and democracy”; (italics added)

- Identifies Japan and ROK as “natural political partners in Asia” that “have a close similarity in overall views and are ‘like-minded’ in many ways” to Europe.

- Judges “that for the foreseeable future an essential element in the security architecture of the region is provided by the US’s network of bilateral alliances and its associated military presence” and recognizes that “that the credibility of US defence guarantees in the region is essential at present for the region’s stability”

- Regarding the S. China sea dispute, encourages “all parties to clarify the basis for their claims” (italics added).

(2) the July joint US-EU statement at the ARF;

- Try this thought experiment: can you imagine a joint EU-China statement on their strategic approach to the region?

(3) EU High Rep. Ashton’s 25 September Declaration on the maritime dispute (which came after Casarini’s article was published).

- The EU “urges all parties concerned to seek peaceful and cooperative solutions in accordance with international law, in particular the UN

Convention on the Law of the Sea and to clarify the basis for their claims” (italics added).

A possible fourth is the continuation of the EU position to shelve the question of lifting the arms embargo on China.

Not all agree that the EU has taken the plunge already. David Fouquet argues in this article that:

[t]he latest EU September statement calling for clarification of the claims and peaceful settlement of disputes, while possibly regarded as favouring one side, also contains enough ambiguity to be more neutral. While the call for clarification might immediately be interpreted as being aimed at China to explain its somewhat confusing ‘Nine Dash Line’ map that seems to claim all the South China Sea, it could also apply to Japan and others which have not released all pertinent diplomatic archives on the issues. Similarly while the call for application of international was also welcomed by some of the parties, it also implies that the EU feels there are disputes to be resolved, which runs counter to those of claimants who argue that there are no disputes and that their claims cannot be contested.

Maybe, if the September statement was seen in isolation, but this is harder to credit when seen in context with the June guidelines and the July joint statement.

Conclusion: Based on the events of summer 2012, it would appear that the EU is leaning further towards the US position in Asia policy, at the expense (consciously or otherwise) of the advantages it could gain from a more independent position.

Recommendations: Casarini wonders if Europe lacks the capabilities and cohesion to play an independent role, and he is not the only one. His report recommends a three-point approach: EU dialog with the US, with China, and with ASEAN. For me, this sounds sensible but is still too China-centric. Also, ASEAN is itself at risk of being split between the demands of US & China, so Europe might need to introduce other elements to tip the balance in its favour. A more stable base could come from a broader three-point approach: (i) EU-USA dialog on Asia policy; (ii) dialog with China, and (ii) dialog with EU, ASEAN, Japan, Australia + New Zeland. This puts those sharing an interest in being non-aligned, ‘hedging’ or fence-sitting (EU, Japan, ASEAN, Aus+NZ) in an advantageous ratio to the US and China. This non-aligned approach is based on the principle that not taking sides is the best way of maximising the opportunity for Europe to gain in terms of both its relations with Asia, AND its relations with the USA. Also on the recognition that Europe is not alone in this dilemma, and it can gain by partnering with others who share its predicament.

I will explain in more detail in a later post what I mean by this as a European policy in Asia of principled equidistance and partnership.

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