The ASEAN and EU relationship: a shared present and future?


Global Europe

Picture of Ravindra Ngo
Ravindra Ngo

Founder and CEO of The Asian Network

The partnership between the European Union – at the time, the European Economic Community (EEC) – and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) dates back to 1972. Soon after, the EU became an ASEAN Dialogue Partner in 1977. On 14 December 2022, the two most advanced and integrated regional organisations gathered on the 45th anniversary of ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations at the Commemorative Summit, at which they reaffirmed their shared interest in a peaceful, stable and prosperous region. Several agreements were made concerning economic cooperation and trade; connectivity and the digital transition; and sustainable development, the environment and climate change.

Both blocs have integrated the economies of their member states into a single market, totalling more than 450mn consumers in the EU and over 650mn consumers in ASEAN. In 2021, ASEAN represented the EU’s third largest trading partner, accounting for more than €215.9bn of trade in goods. At the summit, ASEAN encouraged the EU’s cooperation on programmes aimed at supporting micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, which form the backbone of the ASEAN economy.

Emphasis was also placed on strengthening people-to-people connectivity initiatives, as well as stronger research and education links between ASEAN and the EU, including exchanges among researchers, students and youth. In addition, relevant policy frameworks, including the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 and the EU’s Global Gateway strategy, will be implemented to develop quality infrastructure in line with international standards.

Finally, the ASEAN-EU High-Level Dialogue on Environment and Climate Change was understood as an important platform that reinforces policy dialogue and advances ASEAN-EU cooperation on environmental, climate change and sustainable development issues. The EU-funded Smart Green ASEAN Cities programme and the ASEAN Catalytic Green Finance Facility, which support green infrastructure investments, were cited as other critical examples.

We should encourage great powers to compete not based on power but based on leadership

The 45th anniversary undoubtedly marks a significant milestone for the two organisations. Nevertheless, their strategic partnership is fragile due to regional and international challenges.

The crises in Myanmar and Afghanistan, geopolitical tensions around Taiwan and the North Korean situation present complications. In May and July 2023, Thailand and Cambodia will hold general elections that many believe will not be conducted freely or fairly. International concerns such as the ongoing war in Ukraine, which puts Europe under pressure to reinvent its security architecture, the food crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change create a degree of uncertainty for the strategic relationship between the two partners.

How ASEAN and the EU act and react – both separately and together – to major challenges will define the futures of the more than one billion people. Indonesia’s leadership of ASEAN will likely ensure continuity of the current positive trend of EU-ASEAN relations through 2027. However, external powers and rising tensions between the United States and China may directly influence relations at any given moment.

ASEAN is on the rise with annual growth in many of its member countries projected at 4% to 5% in the coming decade; on the other hand, Europe has entered a period of critical vulnerability as it tries to diversify its energy dependency and tackle inflation.

We should encourage great powers to compete not based on power but based on leadership in effectively managing domestic challenges and contributing to the global public good, for example, by finding solutions to tackle cyber threats and future global pandemics. It is essential to underline the importance of key stakeholder engagement and dialogue, including the private sector, youth, organisations and civil society, when addressing these complex challenges.

As Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, stated at the closing of the recent EU-ASEAN Summit in Brussels: “All this [the Russia-Ukraine War] is a stark reminder that today, in this world of interdependencies, there is no such thing as a European problem, or an Asian problem either. All the challenges we face today are of global nature and therefore affect all of us.”

This article is a contribution from a member or partner organisation of Friends of Europe. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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