Prospects for EU-ASEAN Security Ties

Prospects for EU-ASEAN Security Ties

Ambiguity persists over how ASEAN-EU security relations may evolve given the announcement of ‘strategic partnership’ between the two organisations/blocs in August 2019. Both face the implications of the heavy involvement of great powers in regional geopolitics. This could potentially impact the EU, as Brussels seeks to enhance its engagements in the Indo-Pacific.

EU wants closer security ties with ASEAN

Historically, the ‘security’ engagement and cooperation between the European Union and ASEAN has been low. Even today, it is limited to political affirmations during exchanges – in fact, the analyses of the EU’s role as a whole has largely been downplayed in the discourse on Indo-Pacific affairs. In contrast, these two blocs share vibrant ‘economic’ relations, which is evident by the fact that the EU is ASEAN’s second biggest trading partner ($263 billion in 2019).

However, in recent years, the EU has been showing interest in increasing its security cooperation with ASEAN. Take, for example, the EU’s chief diplomat, Frederica Mogherini’s statement during the 2019 EU-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference. She said,

“We believe that Asian security is also European security.”

Mogherini’s statement was not the first time EU had articulated intention of stronger security relations with Asia, including ASEAN. The EU’s Global Europe strategy (2016) document too reflects such intention. The document hints the bloc’s intention to apply a ‘politically rounded’ approach towards Asia in terms of economic development and security. The document also auspiciously points to the EU’s serious economic and security endeavours with regard to the Indo-Pacific. This includes the EU’s greater focus on economic diplomacy and security relations with ASEAN.

Certain EU members have a strong incentive to lead the bloc towards enhanced security ties in the Indo-Pacific, including with ASEAN. France, for example, is embracing a multilateral approach, placing the Indo-Pacific at the centre of its strategy.

The majority of France’s maritime interests arise from its territorial positions in the Pacific. These territories include Cliperton Island, French Polynesia, Wallis and Fotuna and New Caledonia. To this end, Florence Parly, the French Minister for the Armed Forces, emphasized France’s ‘re-balance’ to the Indo-Pacific region. Florence’s emphasis echoed the French President Emmanuel Macron’s earlier speech in Australia’s Garden Island.

Complexity of strategic partnerships

Both the EU and ASEAN recently have ‘in principle’ elevated relations to ‘Strategic Partnership’. The success of this partnership is dependent on complex factors. The practical component of ASEAN-EU security relations hinges on the geopolitical environment in which ASEAN seeks to implement the Indo-Pacific concept.

Despite the tensions over the South China Sea (SCS), ASEAN has many engagements with China. ASEAN’s optimism to conclude the Code of Conduct on SCS is one of the reasons behind these uninterrupted engagements. In addition, the benefits of ASEAN-China trade and the BRI further underline this closeness.

Furthermore, Indonesia’s insistence on ASEAN centrality has largely driven the bloc to consistently apply an overall ‘inclusive’ approach. Accordingly, ASEAN will prefer to use the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting (ADMM) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) – instead of adopting the US’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy – to deal with global power tension.

In contrast, the EU is divided on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On the one hand, Italy and several Central and Eastern European counties (dubbed the 16+1 initiative) have embraced BRI. On the other, France’s President Macron reiterated the EU’s need to avoid ‘naïveté’ towards China. Macron believes that China has the ability to use economic instruments for political ends.

Necessity of a multilateral approach

European and Indo-Pacific leaders need to foster closer security ties. They can do so using multilateral mechanisms — something which will also help to ease the implications of current global changes. They need to develop a mutual understanding of one another’s roles in maintaining economic relations whilst preserving security interests in Indo-Pacific.

To this end, the aforementioned Pacific institutions (ADMM and EAS) might become the center of future ASEAN-EU cooperation. In fact, the EU is currently lobbying to enter these institutions to demonstrate a further commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.

However, the EU has the temptation to revert to bilateral channels. This is particularly true when the bloc seeks to meet its objectives in the area of economic diplomacy. The trade deals reached with Vietnam and Singapore stand as evidence to this end. These deals reflect the EU’s persistence to maintain trade links via bilateral means when the pace of multilateral channels is slower.

Accordingly, many argue that bilateral deals are the basis for an eventual ASEAN-EU trade deal. But there’s the necessity of greater effort to bolster multilateral mechanisms too. This involves the EU pushing for acceptance into the aforementioned ADMM.

This could potentially become an important consideration for ASEAN, especially if the Quadrilateral (Quad) version of Indo-Pacific comes into play. The Quad would centrally involve the US, Australia, India and Japan in revatilising security capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region. In the process, the Quad’s relations with China would likely worsen because of the breadth of its regional security engagement. However, any agreement on the Quad is still far off. India, in particular, periodically demonstrates reluctance about the Quad because of its desire to maintain good relations with China.

In Conclusion

Taking the aforesaid factors into consideration, it is advisable that both ASEAN and the EU should learn to navigate the geopolitical obstacles that lay ahead. For this, it is necessary to practice multilateralism and maintain rules-based order, both of which could steer the institutional growth of these two blocs.

Categories: Security, Under The Radar

About Author

Nikola Popovic

Nikola is currently working in the finance industry in Australia. He has previously worked as a researcher across State and Federal governments. Nikola has completed a Masters of International Relations at the University of Sydney and a Bachelor of International and Global Studies at both the University of Sydney and the University of Geneva. He has previously contributed articles to International Policy Digest and Young Australians in International Affairs on Chinese foreign relations and the European Union.