From climate change to mediation – should the EU be a strategic actor in Asia-Pacific?

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: European External Action Service

Last week’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore saw French and British representatives promising a stronger security involvement in the region. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, for example, suggested increasing naval patrols by European countries. However, it appears that there was no notable strategic coordination by European ministers before the statement – making actual coordination mechanisms and any European naval presence in the Asia-Pacific a distant reality.

The French (and British) advances at the Shangri-La Dialogue were typical of the development of European foreign and security policy over the past twenty years. Individual countries have been pushing their own agendas or blocking collective approaches. Just think of the memorable meeting at Saint-Malo between Chirac and Blair that is often considered the beginning of Europe’s Common Security and Defense Policy. Moving away from ‘ad-hocery’, the European Union is at a different juncture in 2016. In June we will not only see the outcome of the British referendum on the EU, but also the launch of the EU’s Global Strategy (probably only if the UK decides to remain in the EU). Driven by High Representative Federica Mogherini, the Global Strategy is meant to provide an overall programme of priorities on foreign and security policy. While declaratory in nature, such a strategy could influence European budget decisions and the choice on what kind of expertise to build up within its institutions.

Strategy involves making tough choices regarding what to prioritise and which areas not to invest in. Whilst there is a clear recognition within the EU of the importance of engaging with the Asia-Pacific, more pressing crises have tended to push this long-term goal into the background. In this environment, a more consistent basic level of engagement should be institutionalised. This means, first and foremost, identifying EU interests, the added value that the EU can bring to Asian partner countries, and what is the competitive advantage.

The EU’s own interests in the region are broad and basic – the promotion of multilateralism, institution building and stability. Contrast this with the thorny migration and security interests at play in the refugee crisis in the European neighbourhood and it is clear that the EU has more room for manoeuvre and a greater chance of success in Asia. This gives the EU an opportunity for achieving its goals by focusing on its partners’ needs. But it is an opportunity that can only be taken with a fresh commitment to the region and an updated strategy that reflects the new reality of equal partnership.

Now one might argue, what is the benefit of going beyond the East Asia Policy Guidelines (2012), the Central Asia Strategy (2015) or 2007, or the ASEAN paper? Indeed, an alternative approach would be to think of policy areas of common interest and to base bilateral relations merely on ‘functional cooperation’ on common challenges. Good examples of this approach would be the EU’s cyber security strategy or the Maritime Safety and Security Action Plan.

There are advantages to this approach, in particular on climate change, human security and development cooperation. Where many countries share the EU’s interests, functional and multilateral cooperation will benefit all. Thus, a functional approach would provide the consistency needed in the EU’s strategy towards the Asia-Pacific.

Moreover, the vast differences between the countries and actors in Asia-Pacific require different priorities in bilateral relations. Lumping these together as a homogeneous ‘Asia-Pacific’ is highly problematic, due to different conditions and diverging interests. The relative importance of development issues as opposed to security cooperation will differ highly when developing relations with Australia or Nepal. A more issue-based approach promises to respond to individual countries’ needs, by creating networks of partner countries with which the EU can develop, for instance, joint approaches to human-made disaster risk reduction.

A new report by LSE IDEAS and the Dahrendorf Forum thus argues that a new EU Asia strategy should be built around enhancing security and political relations, development cooperation, and climate change policy. To justify a regional perspective there are three main recommendations: first, to increase cooperation through Asian multilateral forums and non-traditional security issues, second, for the EU to position itself as a neutral arbiter in a volatile Asia Pacific, and third to focus on public diplomacy. Cross-cutting concerns remain the diverging concepts of sovereignty and multilateralism between the two regions and a lack of mutual understanding.

As pointed out by former diplomat Robert Cooper, a strategy cannot replace action – and cannot replace the role of skilled diplomats on the ground. In his chapter he explores how decades of EU involvement in Myanmar eventually bore fruit after the elections in 2010. The EU had successfully seized an opportunity when it appeared in discussions with Burmese counterparts to release political prisoners. Similarly, the decision to dispatch an ad-hoc EU electoral observation mission in 2012 was an important symbol supporting the democratisation process. Yet, his account is a cautionary tale that outside actors, even powerful ones like the EU, will only have influence at the margins and only when such ‘windows of opportunity’ appear. Strategy and opportunity as well as diplomatic skill thus have to go hand-in-hand.

The EU and its member states are standing at a new juncture of global politics. There are internal challenges of competing member states’ interests and parochialism of the different parts of its own bureaucratic structure. Yet, in this environment of power shift, should it follow Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping’s advice and ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’? Or should the EU rather develop a strong compass to navigate these ‘changing waters’?

The full analysis was published as a Special Report ‘Changing Waters: Towards a New EU Asia Strategy’ edited by Olivia Gippner. The research for this article was supported by the Dahrendorf Forum, a joint initiative by the Hertie School of Governance, LSE and Stiftung Mercator.

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Olivia Gippner
Olivia Gippner is Dahrendorf Postdoctoral Fellow on EU-East Asia Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.