What if Europeans compete with ‘Europe’ for closer security and political links to ASEAN?

France's foreign minister Laurant Fabius sits across some flags from the ASEAN Secretary Genera, H.E. Le Luong Minh.

France’s foreign minister Laurant Fabius sits across some flags from the ASEAN Secretary General, H.E. Le Luong Minh.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius visited Jakarta from July 31 to August 2 in an effort to build a bilateral strategic partnership with Indonesia. Fabius also visited the Secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where he met with Secretary-General (pictured above).

Fabius is the first French Minister of Foreign Affairs to visit Indonesia in 17 years, and the speech he gave about French Policy towards Asia during his visit to the ASEAN Secretariat is worth a read. He began with a bit of history (early diplomatic contacts in the 16th century), and culture (art, bread and spring rolls, etc.) before getting down to the geopolitics:

Fabius said there is a French ‘Pivot’ to Asia, but in contrast to the US Pivot, it is diplomatic and economic rather than military. Fabius noted that he would like France to maintain its pioneering role in the implementation of cooperation for peace and security with ASEAN in the future, reminding his audience that “It was with this in mind that France expressed its desire to participate in the ADMM+ (ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting).” – a desire that has not yet been fulfilled, a bit like the EU’s bid to joint the East Asia Summit.

I am grateful to Felix Sharief for his good coverage of this visit and for highlighting an interesting dynamic involving not just France, but Germany and the UK too. He concludes his article on it (European Pivots to Southeast Asia: Leaving the EU-ASEAN Corridors?)  thus:

“The EU’s status as a dialogue partner of ASEAN nonetheless subjects EU member states to barriers in their own pursuits of strategic interests through regional frameworks. However, France’s latest gesture toward ASEAN shows European countries now have two options: they can wait until the EU fully participates in all ASEAN-led regional political-security frameworks, or they could take their own steps if they want to have a greater role in the regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific.”

But is it really going to be a choice? If France, the UK or Germany joins the East Asian Summit or ADMM+, doesn’t that make it less likely that the EU will be invited to sit alongside them as a member? It may be that the race for membership of these fora is as much competitive as complimentary.

There may be another interesting aspect of competition going on here – between the EU and USA in Asia. Fabius had noted in a recent interview that: “France and Indonesia are founding countries of the EU and the Asean”, and although there were plenty of references to NE Asia in his speech, he gave the audience in Jakarta a theory on what unites France and Indonesia/ASEAN in particular:

“Another aspect of our shared world view can be seen in our common commitment to a multipolar world. The world was bipolar with the domination of the United States and the USSR. It was then, for a short time, unipolar, dominated by the United States. In the future, we all want it to become multipolar, with regulated multipolarity. For the moment, in my view, it is zeropolar. And this is why the United Nations is paralysed and we are unable to settle major conflicts, such as the current conflict in Syria.

To move beyond this zeropolar world, we do not want to reconstitute a bipolar relationship in the form of a Chinese-American G2. And neither the United States nor China desires that. For Europe and the countries of South-East Asia, that would mean a loss of strategic independence, or even, in the worst-case scenario, an obligation to choose.

What draws us together, ASEAN, Europe and France, is the determination to build a genuine, organized multipolar world, in which the EU and ASEAN play a stabilizing role. ASEAN has more than 600 million inhabitants – one-tenth of the global population – and relies on remarkable economic dynamism. The EU, with its 500 million inhabitants, is the world’s leading commercial power. Taken separately, these two poles count for a lot. United, our influence will be decisive!”

Some have even referred to the idea of united EU-ASEAN influence as a ‘pact‘. I assume the EU leadership is fine with this initiative being advocated by their founder. I wonder how it fits in with last year’s Ashton/Clinton joint statement on the Asia-Pacific region…

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