Despite the global power shift from West to East and almost everyone in the EU recognising that the importance of Asia is growing, there has been a lacking willingness to devote time, energy and resources to deepening relations with the region. There has been a lack of a unified strategic vision for the region, and due to internal policy divisions and institutional squabbles, the EU has failed to become a strong, cohesive, actor. Thus, the EU needs to prioritise and focus if to be able to successfully pursue a strategy towards East Asia.
East Asia is the home to the fastest growing economies in the world. It contains both like-minded partners, economic powerhouses, and a number of developing countries with an interest in learning from the EU experiences. The EU has a unique advantage in the region; besides having economic weight it is seen as a nonthreatening partner in the region, giving a comparative advantage over other major powers such as the US and China. However, the success of the EU’s strategy requires a unified strategy with clear prioritisation of areas where the EU realistically can have an impact. Emphasise should be put on enhancing the bilateral trade and investment conditions, and to pursue principled polices in particular towards Southeast Asian nations that are going through a democratisation process. Being a region with widespread ecological problems, the impact of knowledge and technology transfers would benefit the EU’s global interests in the environment, energy and climate change areas, as a more sustainable East Asia have direct impact on a global scale.
When designing an EU global strategy towards East Asia it is important to start form where we are, even if that is not where we would like to be. The European Union is not viewed as a serious political or security actor in East Asia among the regional countries. The EU is best understood as an outside-actor, with no hard power in the region. However, this is not necessary a bad thing. Instead, the EU has a unique position, being seen as a nonthreatening partner. If used wisely, the role as a nonthreatening partner can together with the EU’s economic weight secure a leading position together with China and the US not only in the region but in the world.
There are many areas of shared concern between the EU and the US. However, the EU should be cautious when cooperating with the US ensuring not losing its credibility and becoming irrelevant as an independent actor. Despite sharing principles, there are major differences between the EU’s attempt to combine principled policies with economic and security concerns while the US policy, in contrast, focuses on the security first, almost always winning over democracy.
The strengthening of bilateral trade and investment flows, including interlinked areas such as improved market access and investment conditions, should be the main focus of the EU’s strategy towards East Asia. The pursuit of FTAs with East Asian counterparts should be continued, with special emphasis on Japan and Indonesia. The EU should avoid making economic concessions in exchange for concessions on principles. The current practice of pursuing policies aimed at maximising European access and competiveness rather that pursuing multilateralism for its own sake should be continued.
The EU should be selective in pursuing principled policies, creating more impact for the policies pursued and not to undermining either its role in region or the bilateral trade and investment relations. The EU should focus on cooperation with likeminded partners (Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN countries). Such a focus will have best possible spill-over effects in the region, and globally as East Asian partners will also benefit the EU’s work on the global level.
To develop EU-China relations are essential, with China already being the world’s 2nd largest economy and the EU being Chinas largest trading partner. Being a country with widespread ecological problems, the impact of knowledge and technology transfers would benefit the EU’s global interests in the environment, energy and climate change areas, as a more sustainable China have direct impact on a global scale. The China strategy should stand on three legs; economic cooperation – with a focus of protecting European interests such as investments and intellectual property rights as well cooperation around green technology – people-to-people exchanges, and the strengthening of the strategic partnership. For the latter to succeed there is a need to overcoming diverging value expectation, trying to reach a pragmatic consensus on how to make Beijing and the EU’s policies complimentary. All the above needs to be accomplished while the EU continues to stay vocal concerning the human rights situation in China.
It is important to recognise that East Asia is not only China. The EU should prioritise relations with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). After a long period of scepticism, ASEAN has opened up to learn from the EU experience making it a potentially major success in the EU’s global strategy. Particular emphasis should be put on Indonesia, one of the region’s most democratic countries and home to the largest Muslim population in the world. Relations with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan should be enhanced – there are partners that are not only major economic powers, but also ones with whom the EU are sharing similar values and similar challenges.
It is in the EU’s interest to contribute to the safeguarding of regional peace and security. The EU should work together with regional partners, in particular ASEAN, and the US on issues concerning regional peace and security on all levels, including, but not limited to, forum such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit.