The EU's role in shaping Asia's security


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Yeo Lay Hwee
Yeo Lay Hwee

Director of Nanyang Technological University’s European Union Centre

Controversy and bitter debate marked global responses to the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq in 2003, with EU countries openly divided on the issue. Against this backdrop, the EU’s first European Security Strategy (ESS) entitled “A Secure Europe in a Better World” set out how the Union sees itself as an active and coherent security actor.

In Asia, many were struck not so much by what was in the ESS but by the sharp differences over Iraq between France and Germany on the one hand, and the UK and Spain on the other. There was therefore widespread scepticism about the prospects of the EU playing a more active security role.

Today, more than a decade later, the same scepticism remains amongst Asians about the EU’s ability to be a serious security actor despite all the efforts by the EU to pursue its foreign and security ambitions. These ambitions were reflected in the Lisbon treaty’s institutional changes concerning the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and its attendant Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). These included the creation of a “High Representative” for foreign affairs and security policy, together with the new EU diplomatic ‘arm’, the European External Action Service (EEAS).

In Asia, the U.S. remains the principal security actor. Security in the region is still viewed very much in terms of territorial integrity, but there is a growing recognition of the threats posed by non-traditional security issues from terrorism to pandemics, along with climate change and environmental degradation. These have opened up opportunities for the EU to become more involved in the region beyond economics and trade.

The EU is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) where a number of non-traditional security issues have been discussed, but even so the general perception in East Asia is that the EU remains first and foremost an economic power.

Yet the EU should not despair that it is not taken as a serious security actor in Asia. The distinguished American political scientist Joseph S. Nye noted in his book ‘The Future of Power’ that a premium must increasingly be placed on information, communication and legitimate authority. In this respect, the EU should not underestimate its own power; it remains high in the world’s economic rankings, accounting for 30% of global trade, 50% of global GDP outflows and 40% of inflows with many of its member states ranking high in economic competitiveness and openness. Europe is still the biggest economic bloc, and in the area of trade the EU has exclusive competence and legitimate authority to act on behalf of all its members.

The EU’s influence in Asia will come not from its security role but from investing more wholeheartedly in existing bi-lateral and inter-regional partnerships and multi-lateral fora in Asia. Europe should not underestimate its economic significance, and the EU’s active pursuit of free trade agreements with its Asian partners is a step in the right direction. It needs to leverage its economic weight to create, as some analysts have put it, “stabilising interdependence” in Asia.

The EU need not be in the forefront of regional security in Asia, but can instead play a more constructive role by enabling others to act

Just as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a pragmatic approach towards an eventual APEC free trade area, and the U.S. ‘pivot’ marks a strategic move to strengthen America’s economic engagement in the Asia-Pacific, the EU should consider an EU-ASEAN economic partnership as a potential step towards an ambitious ASEM free trade agreement (FTA). Through trade policy and its FTAs, the EU could help unleash Asia’s economic potential and further integrate Asian economies into a global network that would underpin the region’s stability, while at the same time benefitting European economies as Asian investments there grow.

To be taken seriously as an actor, whether in security or otherwise, the EU should perhaps be more mindful of the expectations and capability gap, and not to be too carried away by its own rhetoric. To quote Walter Lippman, one of the most influential American commentators in the Cold War era, good foreign policy is one where commitments do not outweigh the resources available to achieve them. The EU therefore needs to be more cautious in its proclamations but more ambitious in its actions, channelling resources to where it can make a difference. In the area of trade and development, a more ambitious agenda in Asia should be an EU priority.

Beyond using its trade agenda to establish a clear and salient presence in Asia, the EU could play an important supporting role in Asian security by enhancing the capacity of ASEAN to manage a pan-Asian security structure in the Asia-Pacific. Just as the EU is willing to shoulder more responsibility in its own neighbourhood by stabilising states in transition with offers of enhanced partnership, ASEAN is similarly committed to maintaining stability in its region. The agenda-setting role played by ASEAN is important in bringing all the major Asia-Pacific powers to the various dialogue fora. Supporting ASEAN’s efforts to enhance security through confidence building would be an important EU contribution to Asian security. The EU need not be in the forefront of regional security in Asia, but can instead play a more constructive role by enabling others to act.

The EU’s own experience clearly demonstrates that sustainable peace has to be underpinned by strong people-to-people ties. Student and youth exchanges were as much a part of the exchanges between officials and politicians in the process of Franco-German reconciliation. The Elysée treaty signed by the two countries in 1963 provided for extensive co-operation on education and youth issues, and the EU could through think tanks and universities, youth groups and foundations, organise regular summer programmes to bring together young leaders, youths and students from East Asian countries, particularly China, Japan and Korea with European counterparts to learn about Europe’s post-war integration. This might help to temper some of the rising nationalism and parochialism in Asia of recent years. The EU’s integration model may not transplant to other regions, but it is a story of peace and reconciliation that must not be forgotten.

The world is moving away from security thinking that is seen mainly in military terms. Human security encompasses fundamental rights and social stability, and serves to counter extremism in society. Economic security is achieved through closer integration and spans improved living conditions and quality of life. In addition, ecological security and sustainability also contribute to political maturity where conflicts are mitigated by debate and compromise. These are all areas where the EU has much to offer. Rather than fretting about whether Europe is seen as a serious security actor in Asia, policymakers should instead focus on what the EU can do best.

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