ASEM has a role to play in improved Asia-Europe cooperation on security


Global Europe

Picture of Bart Gaens
Bart Gaens

Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Europe currently has a wide range of security-related debates on the agenda, ranging from migration and defence policies to border control and internal security collaboration; from the security implications of Brexit to cooperation with NATO. At the same time, Europe is faced with an increasingly assertive neighbourhood, marked by new, unprecedented risks such as hybrid threats. Moreover, global power relations are in a state of flux, the transatlantic relationship is weakening, and question marks are being placed on the future of multilateralism, the liberal world order and the rules-based global system.

With increasing internal and external challenges, the European Union is aware of its need to play a larger global role as a security actor in order to defend its values and interests. In Asia in particular, the EU feels compelled to deepen security cooperation with its partners. As emphasized by the European Council in May 2018, cooperation with Asia should focus more on the achievement of “tangible results in addressing shared security challenges”, in particular in the fields of maritime and cyber security, counter-terrorism, hybrid threats, conflict prevention, non-proliferation and the development of regional cooperative orders.

The importance of platforms such as the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in achieving these ambitious goals is undeniable. However, ASEM has its limitations: it was never intended to function as a forum for negotiating agreements or crafting joint security policies. Rather, it was established as a political catalyst and a complementary platform to address shared challenges – or promote common interests – in other multilateral fora. Yet, in spite of these in-built restrictions, in the coming years ASEM can play an important role in helping to improve Asia-Europe security cooperation in three particular areas.

The importance of platforms such as the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in achieving these ambitious goals is undeniable

First, ASEM should function as a venue for both regions to uphold support for a rules-based multilateral system. In fact, the United States’ unilateralism has been an issue on the ASEM agenda since the creation of the forum. With the liberal world order now under threat, the need for countries in Europe and Asia to take a united stance in order to persuade the US that the benefits of multilateral co-operation outweigh the costs is today more salient than ever. However, ASEM should serve as a venue to help sustain multilateral cooperation in traditional as well as non-traditional security issues, and not to “gang up” against the US.

Second, ASEM should better exploit its complementary role in globally important security issues. For example, maritime security is a field in which the EU, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and many Asian countries share a core interest. The EU in particular has been increasingly active in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in order to profile itself as an ‘honest broker’ and a global maritime security provider. Furthermore, exchange of best practises has been taking place at the EU-ASEAN High-Level Dialogue on Maritime Security. Not least importantly, there is the positive experience of EU cooperation with Asian countries in Operation Atalanta, the counter-piracy operation in the Western Indian Ocean. Focusing its agenda more on maritime security and complementing ongoing work in the ARF and EU-ASEAN, ASEM can not only help to exchange best practises but also streamline cooperation between maritime law enforcement agencies, for example. It is clear that tension within ASEM remains on issues such as the South China Sea but as a dialogue forum, ASEM has an important role to play in preventive diplomacy by emphasising international law and by promoting regional maritime multilateralism.

ASEM has an important role to play in preventive diplomacy by emphasising international law and by promoting regional maritime multilateralism

Third, ASEM should further exploit its capacities as a bridge-builder between stakeholder groups and promote a so-called multi-stakeholder approach to security. One of ASEM’s greatest strengths is that it has a solid bottom-up dimension, bringing together governments as well as parliaments, the private sector, the academic community and civil society organisations. It therefore has the capacity to stimulate cooperation among self-organising and self-coordinating clusters of countries and regional organisations, but also to include participants from the non-governmental, civil society level. These informal, multi-stakeholder working groups can focus on specific projects in defined, security-related areas such as conflict prevention or the promotion of regional cooperation on crisis management capabilities. In this respect, the successful Aceh Monitoring Mission that started in 2005 can serve as a positive example that combines the skills, expertise and funding from different countries and regional organisations.

Europe is facing a number of internal and external challenges but is set on playing a more significant role in Asia, where its interests are closely connected to regional security and stability. ASEM offers one venue to promote security cooperation between Asia and Europe. While the forum has its limitations, it has the potential to greatly increase its importance in the coming years, whether on promoting a multi-stakeholder approach on security, sustained support for multilateralism, or complementing existing work on maritime security.

This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘My ASEM wishlist: how Asia and Europe should really be working together’, in which we go beyond officialdom and seek out ‘unusual suspects’ – students, teachers, activists, journalists, think tankers, etc. – who consider where they would like the state of Asia-Europe relations to be by 2030 and what the two continents should do to get there.

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