The EU cannot be a bystander on Asian security


Picture of Takashi Terada
Takashi Terada

Takashi Terada is Professor of International Relations at Doshisha University, Kyoto

Asian security is being threatened at a multitude of flashpoints. In the northeast, North Korea under Kim Jong-un has launched long-range ballistic missiles after beginning the year by carrying out its fourth nuclear test, and it was announced in early March that Pyongyang now possesses nuclear warheads that fit to its ballistic missiles. Given that these weapons can be expected to reach US territory, Washington announced the dispatch of three nuclear-armed stealth bombers to east Asia while it carried out a large-scale military exercise with South Korea. In the southeast, tensions in the South China Sea have heightened as the US Navy sent several ships under the banner of ‘freedom of navigation operations’ to the disputed Spratly Islands, where China has escalated militarisation by deploying surface-to-air missiles and constructing runways.

As security becomes more fragile in both the north and southeast of Asia, should the EU become more clearly engaged? My answer is conditionally yes. These Asian flashpoints are not directly impacting the daily lives of European citizens, like the refugee crisis or Russian antagonism, but I believe the EU needs to be engaged in Asian security for the sake of its economic and business stability.

The EU needs to be engaged in Asian security for the sake of its economic and business stability

The economy has played a key role in contemporary international relations, especially in east Asia. According to the World Bank, the region’s estimated growth for last year was 6.5%, while the European Commission estimated a figure of 1.6% for the EU. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has named the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a ‘growth centre of the world’, and this view was actively reflected in the increase in Japan’s share of foreign direct investment in ASEAN from 3% in 2012 to 17% in 2013. A chief reason behind the US push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was similarly to access Asian growth and put the American economy back on track by establishing common trade and investment rules with the Asia-Pacific region. With its successful launch, the TPP is expected to promote structural reforms in member economies, sustaining the region’s continued growth. Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia have each expressed interest in joining, and the US has welcomed the move. The US-ASEAN Special Leaders’ Summit, held this February, was partly designed to bolster US endeavours to urge those and other ASEAN members to join the TPP in the near future.

A unique feature of the TPP is that political leaders tend to view the agreement not only with domestic political economy considerations, but also strategic and military perspectives. Akira Amari, formerly Japan’s Economic Revitalisation Minister in charge of the TPP, often told his US counterpart Michael Froman that ‘we come to negotiate despite opposition back home because we think US involvement is crucial for the stability of east Asia.‘ East Asia’s general acceptance, with the notable exceptions of China and North Korea, of the American commitment to the creation of a free economic zone with its preferred rules and standards is attributed to their reassurance from continued US military and strategic presence. This means the TPP is perceived, at least partly, as the foundation for regional security.

The EU has also shown an interest in capitalising on east Asian growth for its economic and business interests. After signing an FTA with South Korea, which became effective on 1st July 2011, the EU has now chosen potential FTA partners from those that participated in the TPP talks, such as Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, or that have signed an FTA with the United States. The EU’s FTA strategy in east Asia thus has the characteristic of ‘chasing the US’, and this reactive approach is now mixing with east Asia’s general view of the EU as being heavily obsessed with its own intra-regional problems and conflicts, including the Brexit issue, and as not being sincerely interested in east Asian affairs. But the EU isn’t the US, and so it should engage in its own way.

Once the TPP becomes effective, European businesses in Asia will be substantially disadvantaged

The EU inevitably needs to accelerate the speed of its FTA negotiations. Once the TPP becomes effective, European businesses in Asia will be substantially disadvantaged, especially because their American rivals will enjoy preferential market access. This is an urgent matter, given that ASEAN is the EU’s third-largest trading partner after the US and China. If the EU, like the US, decides to play a more constructive role in east Asian security, it will more easily gain concessions in its FTA talks since the agreements could act to reassure regional countries of stability. This is very much is Europe’s interest. Once east Asia, the globe’s growth centre, becomes unstable, Europe’s Asian linkages and economic benefits would soon feel the hurt, and the fate of European business people living in the region would be thrown into jeopardy.
One area in which the EU can play a uniquely constructive role is human security, which transcends national borders in the form of trans-national criminal networks or environmental degradation. Collective actions taken by regional countries sharing human insecurity threats can be more effective than actions taken individually. It’s thus no wonder that the EU has promoted human security cooperation. ASEAN likewise in the 2004 Vientiane Action Plan prioritised institutional coordination between relevant ASEAN bodies to promote cooperation on non-traditional security issues including trans-national crime. Those issues are now seen as important policy ingredients in the formation of the ASEAN Political and Security Community. While the EU and ASEAN have displayed different priorities and approaches in promoting human security, recent improvements in human rights and democratisation in some ASEAN members, especially Myanmar, may expand the EU’s scope for cooperation with ASEAN.

While economic interdependence in east Asia has been increasing, there are growing political tensions, a lack of partnerships between key regional states and little in the way of shared vision amongst struggles for power that have hampered the sound development of regional integration. The US has challenged this ‘Asian Paradox’ through its rebalancing strategy and push for the TPP. China has also defied it by establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which with $100bn in capital has become pivotal in China’s version of a ‘rebalance Asia’ strategy, especially toward central and southern Asia. I believe the EU should also engage in east Asian stability in its own way and for its own interests.

Related activities

view all
view all
view all
Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo