The fact is, much of what is read online and in other media about Asian security and defence issues is produced in the United States, and with good reasons. Historically, the US has looked across the Pacific to Asia as well as across the Atlantic and has had a productive academic community that reflects the country’s strong political and business interests in Asia. Since WW II, when the US took over from the Europeans as the major external regional power in Asia, it has had a series of alliance and economic responsibilities to cope with, all requiring understanding of the region. For much of the post-war period, perhaps because Asia lacked the economic or military power to assert itself beyond the region, interest in Asia outside of the US was rather limited, and what it produced was no match for the volume of US output. But in recent years, things have changed.
Some changes suggest there is value in intensifying the exchange of views between Europe and Asia on security and defence:
- Asia has gained – and famously continues to gain – economic, political and military strength relative to other regions. The re-opening of global free trade since the 1970s has vastly increased Asia’s interactions with countries in all other regions of the world. Asian economic growth and military spending continue at a greater rate than in other regions. As its reach grows in these sectors, what happens in Asia is now more relevant to what happens in Europe.
- European nations have progressed in recent years from a market to a political union, and even a degree of commonality in foreign and defence policy. Following the demise of the USSR, a greater degree of independence from the US became possible, though some Europeans seek it more eagerly than others. The collective GNP of Europe is roughly a third of the global total, and is greater than that of the US. This raises the importance of what Europe thinks for others, including Asians.
- The Obama administration’s announcement of a ‘pivot’ towards Asia is pregnant with meanings for Asia and Europe. It is first a recognition of the oft-quoted prediction that we are beginning the ‘Asian Century’. Current economic trends appear to support this. These changes put Europe on notice that the Atlanticist focus of geopolitics may be ending, and some of the assumptions that served us over that long period are ripe for review. That has implications for Europeans’ relationships with their near neighbors, and those further away in Asia. A famous European said ‘to solve a problem, enlarge the context’. An Asian saying goes ‘befriend the country from afar to counter the country near’. After all, the last time Europe was host to a superpower, it allied with an Asian power (Japan) to counter its near enemy (Tzarist Russia). And, in a further topical sense, Britain did so largely in order to share the security burden of protecting its economic advantage.
So compared to the recent past, the views of Europeans are, like those of Asians, relatively more important, but they may also be more distinct than they were from the views of Americans. Secondly, Europeans would benefit from widening their range of influences when it comes to security and defence. Fortunately for us , Asian perspectives are both more relevant and also more available than they have been for generations. This provides a rationale for fostering a stronger exchange of views between Europe and Asia.
And why focus on security and defence? Because there is simply a clear gap in this field crying out to be filled. Economic and cultural exchanges between Europe and Asia are well covered. Travel and scholarship manifest strong links. But look around for an institution that fosters a dialogue on security between Europe and Asia, and you will find precious little. This blog aims to make a start at filling this gap.