Notwithstanding the consensus between European Union (EU) and ASEAN to upgrade inter-regional relations into a strategic partnership in December 2020, the Munich Security Conference (MSC) 2021 has painted a different picture on the ground. Far from attributing any significance to its newly upgraded strategic partner, the MSC’s agenda was largely concentrated on the transatlantic alliance between the US and its European counterparts—with a total disregard of ASEAN’s voice in international affairs.
This is bewildering given that EU High Representative, Joseph Borrell has given the strongest message about the bloc’s commitment to the Southeast Asian grouping last year. In his official statement on 20 September, 2020, he stipulated both regional blocs have a clear and public agenda—upholding the global, multilateral order—and as such, EU-ASEAN partnership is no longer a luxury but a necessity. But when the distinguished European-based forum like the MSC 2021 failed to include ASEAN’s voice in its agenda, it was a great disappointment for those hoping to see the two regional blocs exchanging views on how international order should be pursued under the era of COVID-19 pandemic and US-China rivalry.
Such an overlooking of ASEAN’s importance in the EU’s worldview begs two critical questions: What can the European bloc do to show its strong commitment to the ASEAN partnership? How committed is the EU to its strategic partnership with ASEAN?
There are four ways in which the EU can act to show its strong commitment to the ASEAN partnership. First and foremost, the EU must indicate it is willing to adopt highly pragmatic approach when comes to free trade negotiations with ASEAN in the coming years. The recently concluded free trade agreements (FTAs) between the EU and Singapore/Vietnam respectively, alongside negotiations between the European bloc with Indonesia for a similar deal, have showcased that it is entirely possible for the European bloc to forge free trade relationships with individual ASEAN countries that are at varying degrees of domestic economic development.
With these FTA successes, both Singapore and Vietnam can serve as excellent models for both EU and ASEAN to move forward on inter-regional FTA. This includes having the Joint Working Group to provide recommendations for incoming FTA that will resolve economic development disparities between the European grouping and specific Southeast Asian nations, before formal re-entry into trade talks. Should this succeed, it will be evidence of the EU’s pragmatism in its economic engagement with ASEAN.
Second, EU ought to identify tangible goals in non-traditional security cooperation with ASEAN, as well as continuing lengthy discussions and explorations for potential collaboration. From combatting terrorism and transnational crime to cyber security to irregular migration, non-traditional security has become the defining feature of EU-ASEAN security cooperation. That said, tangible goals are palpably lacking from such wide-ranging cooperation between the two regional blocs. This is evident in the ASEAN-EU Plan of Action (2018 – 2022), in which the relatively lofty commitments within the most important document to date, further raises the question of how successful the EU-ASEAN security partnership is as a whole.
Nevertheless, this is not as pessimistic an outlook as it may seem. With the EU’s €800-million (USD 955.72 million) COVID-19 package for Southeast Asian nations, the inter-regional security cooperation has reached new heights. For one, the COVID-19 assistance package showed that it is completely viable for both EU and ASEAN to identify collective security goals for inter-regional cooperation within a short period. The rapid pace in rolling out specific financial commitments for ASEAN countries to gain access to information, equipment and vaccines in tackling the current pandemic should serve as the best example of how EU is able to provide tangible assistance to the Southeast Asian grouping within a short period in tackling an urgent non-traditional security issue like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Third, the EU should support ASEAN as the mediating party for the recent military coup in Myanmar. With Myanmar issue at the fore again, the EU is now faced with another test of its long-standing carrot-and-stick approach. But with the US-China global power rivalry compelling the EU to regard ASEAN as a necessary partner in mitigating security risks, further question should be asked on whether it is in the European bloc’s interest to withdraw itself from FTA talks with ASEAN in order to protest Myanmar’s human rights violations and military rule, as it did in 2009. A more appropriate way forward today would be for the EU to support ASEAN’s role as the mediator whether in the form of diplomatic support or financial assistance for mitigating the vicious conflict in Myanmar.
Finally, the EU must also employ positive reinforcement measures in managing their differences with Malaysia and Indonesia over the palm oil ban. While such ban is explicable as bad plantation practices in both countries have brought significant environmental and health impacts to the public at large, it is also important for the EU to recognize that Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta’s push back against its ban is not to be underestimated. Given devastating impacts on the livelihoods of many smallholders in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as their overall exports of the commodity overseas, it is no secret that both governments are using ASEAN’s inter-regional negotiations with the EU to pressure the latter in dropping its palm oil ban since 2017. This comes to the question of how early the European bloc is able to restart its FTA negotiations with ASEAN as both Malaysia and Indonesia will readily incorporate their palm oil agendas within such talks.
What can the EU do more other than instituting an outright ban, however, is roll out a positive reinforcement strategy to encourage both Malaysia and Indonesia to adopt sustainable agricultural practices. Among all, the positive reinforcement measures included providing targeted financial assistance, offering professional training and imparting technological support to their oil palm smallholders, with the condition that they adopt sustainable agricultural practices via EU’s consistent monitoring in the long-term. By enacting these measures, it will construct EU’s image as a constructive partner for ASEAN in which it is willing to assist even when the whole palm oil issue is confined to the two member states of the Southeast Asian grouping.
Commitment by Actions
Whether inter-regional FTAs, non-traditional security cooperation, the Myanmar military coup or palm oil ban, there are plenty of opportunities for the EU to demonstrate its strong commitment to an upgraded strategic partnership with ASEAN. Sending a clear signal to ASEAN that the EU is committed to the strategic partnership it recently upgraded with the former will not only realize the EU’s normative agenda in promoting rules/norms-based international order but also distance it from previous cooperation with the Southeast Asian bloc that has lacked tangible success for either region.