Often cited as natural partners in transregionalism, the relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union may not be as harmonious as it seems. | Graphic by: Afiq Rayyan

EU-ASEAN Partnership: Three Reasons Why It Is Not A Smooth-Sailing One

Often cited as natural partners in transregionalism, what exactly is disrupting the cooperation between ASEAN and the EU, the two most successful regional organisations in the world?

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Often cited as natural partners in transregionalism, the relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) may not be as harmonious as it seems, said Professor Jörn Dosch at a seminar held at Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in August.

What’s more, they may not even be on the same page.

Against a backdrop of US-China trade war and the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the German professor from the University of Rostock said: “There is a growing gap between the EU’s self-perception of its role in Southeast Asia and the way the EU is perceived in the region.

“In this region, the EU is mainly perceived as an economic actor, but the EU almost desperately wants to be seen as a security actor as well.”

During the one and a half hour long lecture on “The EU in Southeast Asia – Looking Beyond the Standard Narrative in Security, Trade and Belt & Road”, three major issues were highlighted by both Professor Dosch and the audience.

1. EU and ASEAN ≠ Same Page

High Representative of European Union for Foreign Affairs and Vice President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini chairing the ASEAN-European Union Ministerial Meeting in conjunction with the 48th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (48th AMM). | Photo by: fotoBERNAMA (2015)

For once, the EU and ASEAN are not pushing for the same agenda.

In addition, ASEAN is not keen to emulate the EU.

The vice-dean of the faculty of economics and social sciences said: “EU not only sees itself as a promoter of regional development, democracy, and globalisation in the region, it also wants to be viewed as a security partner to the region.”

Some of what these security initiatives pushed for include concluding a Code of Conduct which regulates actions in the South China Sea, funding disaster monitoring and prevention efforts in South-east Asia, maritime security and cooperation, and the freedom of navigation and overflight.

In July this year, the European Commission mobilised a new humanitarian funding package worth €8.5 million (S$12.9 million) to help communities in South and Southeast Asia hit by natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

But ASEAN states, who remain extremely protective of their own sovereignty, do not want to implement all the ideas that the EU has to offer, especially so when it comes to surrendering some control over their affairs.

Instead, it merely perceives the EU, a major development partner and the biggest donor to the ASEAN Secretariat with over €200 million (S$3.3 million) of grant funding in support of ASEAN regional integration for the period 2014-2020, as a trade and investment partner; a donor-recipient relationship.

What makes it even more difficult is that the EU has been feeling “frustrated by ASEAN’s refusal to defend the rules-based international trading system” while ASEAN has not been “overly enthusiastic over EU plans for its connectivity”.

2. China, A Silver Lining Or A Stumbling Block?

Photo by: CGTN.com

Adding on to the woes, EU and ASEAN do not see eye to eye with each other on sustainability and human security issues.

One of the top export markets for palm oil, the EU is planning to phase out the fuel from its biofuels by 2030.

As countries within ASEAN, especially the world’s two dominant palm oil producers – Malaysia and Indonesia – start scrambling to look for alternative buyers, a silver lining has appeared: China.

In August alone, according to a cargo surveyor Intertek Testing Services, palm oil shipments from Malaysia to China surged 177 per cent from a month earlier to 265,045 tonnes between Aug 1 and 25 ahead of the Mid-Autumn festival in the country.

Similarly, according to the Nikkei Asian Review in August, China has become Indonesia’s top buyer in palm oil after a decline in soybean oil imports from the US.

With about 16 million farmers and workers in the sector, President Joko Widodo told Bloomberg that he would “fight any EU discrimination” against palm oil, calling it a strategic commodity for Indonesia.

In Cambodia, the country also risks losing special access to the EU’s “Everything But Arms” trade scheme, a deal that allows the world’s least developed countries to export most goods to the EU free of duties, due to its human rights record.

Again, China has agreed to step in to assist if that happens, said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in April.

According to Reuters, China is currently Cambodia’s biggest aid donor and investor, pouring in billions of dollars in development aid and loans through the Belt and Road initiative. Unlike Western countries, China does not question Cambodia’s record on rights.

In addition, Philippines’ ‘War on Drugs’ and alleged human rights abuses are also a huge concern for the EU, thus hindering negotiations for a free trade deal between the two parties.

3. The Shock of the Brexit Vote

Brexit protestor flags near the Palace of Westminster, London. | Photo by: ChiralJon

Although the EU is widely seen as a role model for regionalism and ASEAN’s future growth, Dr Dosch disagrees that “the relationship is as straightforward”, citing Brexit as an example.

The exit of the United Kingdom from the EU shocked the world and roiled financial markets.

Adding on, Professor Frederick Kliem, who was the chairperson of the talk, suggested that the troubles of the EU stemmed from the “over infringement of state sovereignty”, thus resulting in the current animosity towards further integration.

The visiting fellow at RSIS said: “In essence, when excessive legislation is present,  backlash may be inevitable, especially when it is not necessary or welcomed.

“(Thus), when regional integration is pursued purely politically without regard for other aspects of integration, it may create a situation where the entire idea becomes revulsive.”


Commentary by Clement Ooi, Opinions Editor

What Professor Dosch offers is an European view of what ails the EU-ASEAN relationship, reflecting a normative view of the situation.

As the audience pointed out, these concerns may not be reflected by ASEAN members, or interpreted in the same way.

One particular point seems to be the intrusiveness of the EU agenda, specifically its insistence on human rights and democracy.

EU’s reluctance to provide aid to the Hun Sen government in Cambodia stems from their perception that governance Cambodia is not sufficiently democratic.

However, ASEAN states do not look fondly upon outsider intervention into their domestic affairs, and much less so when it appears to be coming from a region that includes many former colonial powers, especially one that arguably has neo-colonialist intentions. Thus, they are not necessarily unreasonable when they treat foreign interference in their affairs with suspicion.

Additionally, Southeast Asia’s colonial past has generally benefited European states at the expense of indigenous populations. For example, the Dutch colony of Indonesia (then known as the Dutch East Indies) were forced to produce extra crops for export to the Netherlands, under a policy known as Cultuurstelsel in Dutch, or by its much less flattering name in Indonesia, Tanam Paksa, meaning “enforcement planting”.

The Dutch East Indies is by no means the only colony to have suffered from such exploitation.

The French empire ruled modern-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam as French Indochina with an iron fist, quashing any dissent from the local population. French control was established by the start of the 20th century, and continued until Japanese forces temporarily drove them out in the Second World War. By 1954, local rebellions fully expelled the French. It seems all too ironic that the EU is now protesting violations of human rights and lack of democratic representation in Southeast Asian states. 

However, that is not to say that the EU does not have a point when it complains about ASEAN’s apparent lack of interest in cooperation as equal partners, or even cooperation within ASEAN itself.

The EU is right to say that climate change will not deal with itself, and as a global supplier of palm oil, ASEAN is part of the problem.

That, nonetheless, does not preclude EU culpability on the issue, as blatant disregard for the interests of ASEAN states is no way to ensure the continuation of a harmonious relationship between the two regional organisations.

But it does suggest that some equitable middle ground should be found between the two groups, with vastly different priorities and levels of economic development.

In a region rife with inter-state tensions, unresolved territorial disputes, and still recovering from the various transgressions, the EU agendas of connectivity, human rights, and security seem to ring hollow in the ears of their ASEAN counterparts when economic security and national sovereignty are on the line.

Conversely, ASEAN’s belief that sovereignty and economic development should be placed first on the agenda do not seem to find much support from the EU.

What seems to truly hinder greater cooperation between the two organisations, hailed as natural partners, is a lack of mutual understanding between the priorities of the other.

Security is complex, and each state’s security concerns are likely to be unique.

A mutual lack of appreciation for the concerns of the other seems to have only widened a rift caused by historical exploitation, and led to different expectations of how the other should act.

As one audience member politely put it: “Unless human rights issues really get in the way of any chance of development, you may have to hold your nose on the issue… It is said that once material modernisation gets underway, democratisation will creep in, either through the front door or the back.”

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