EU in Southeast Asia: An alternative to other powers?

Vice-president of the European Commission Antonio Tajani visits Vietnam, Burma and Thailand on his Mission for Growth.

Questions:

1. How much would you say the EU should focus on this region politically and economically?

2. Is the EU welcomed in Southeast Asia? Could the EU be perceived as the competition from other actors like China, India, the US who are probably more present in the region?

Answers:

 Michael Montesano, Visiting Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, National Institute of Singapore 

1. The EU faces the same challenges that the rest of the world faces in trying to determine how much attention to give to Mainland Southeast Asia.

On the one hand, the region will never have the intrinsic importance of China, either politically or economically. And the region’s economic linkages with China are growing fast.

On the other hand, the size of the region’s economies and the wealth of its people are greater than ever. In absolute terms, then, the region’s economies justify real interest from Europe.

Further, the post-1945 history of Mainland Southeast Asia does not point to its countries’ becoming neo-colonies of the PRC in the twenty-first century.

In terms of politics and values, then, Europe and the EU have a role to play in offering Mainland Southeast Asia a future in which Chinese influence is tempered and in which Mainland Southeast Asians have real choices about the way that their societies will develop. The potential importance of this role is very very great.

2. ​As regards the attitudes of governments and the public in Mainland Southeast Asia, the EU is in a very advantageous position. The novelty value in the region of a multi-lateral actor that does not represent the narrow interests of a single government is an important resource on which the EU can draw. The EU is, I mean, not associated with power politics. Further, Europe’s “soft power” in the region only grows as the region’s people become more affluent and better informed. Finally, on the economic side, European technology enjoys great respect in Mainland Southeast Asia.

What all of these advantages mean is that the EU can do best in the region by not trying to imitate powers like the US or the PRC. It can operate more as does Japan in Mainland Southeast Asia. It should not focus on the same geo-political issues that the US and the PRC focus on, and neither should it try to achieve the same public prominence that those powers enjoy in the region. The EU is a different kind of actor in Mainland Southeast Asia. That is its advantage. Trying to be viewed as a major power in the region will only undercut that advantage.

Bart Gaens, Researcher, the Global Security Research Programme, Finnish Institute of International Affairs

1. I think that the EU should focus strongly on the Southeast Asian region. There are many opportunities to develop trade relations and increase investment. Also to negotiate FTAs (in the long term perhaps even with ASEAN as a whole). Politically ASEAN is an important partner, and ASEAN has often referred to the EU as a prime example of integration. In the past political relations between both regions have been bogged down because of human rights infringements in countries such as Myanmar, but the changes in Myanmar have reopened prospects of stronger political relations at the interregional level.

The EU has reacted swiftly to the changes and reforms in Myanmar since 2011. It has allowed dialogue and suspended sanctions (except the arms embargo). It quickly opened a representative office which this year became an EU Delegation. Nevertheless, countries such as China, India and Japan are ahead of the EU in terms of investment and providing loans.2. I think that the EU (as a “responsible power”) is welcomed in the region. The EU is a strong economic player, it does not have any military interests in the region, and it tends to take into account social responsibilities (much more than China does, for example). The EU can also offer its expertise in conflict mediation, and capacity building. It has the potential to act as a “middle power” or a regional stabilizing force. The EU is certainly competition for countries like China, US, India, Japan etc. The EU should therefore use its competitive advantage (of being a non-US, non-military, responsible power and a model of regional integration). Also development cooperation is highly important as a tool.

2. I think that the EU (as a “responsible power”) is welcomed in the region. The EU is a strong economic player, it does not have any military interests in the region, and it tends to take into account social responsibilities (much more than China does, for example). The EU can also offer its expertise in conflict mediation, and capacity building. It has the potential to act as a “middle power” or a regional stabilizing force. The EU is certainly competition for countries like China, US, India, Japan etc. The EU should therefore use its competitive advantage (of being a non-US, non-military, responsible power and a model of regional integration). Also development cooperation is highly important as a tool.

Edward Yencken, PhD Candidate, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

1. Southeast Asia as a region in general often appears to be less of a priority of the EU as compared to China and India to a lesser extent. Vietnam, Burma and Thailand specifically, however, represent some of the great difficulties with regard to engaging with Southeast Asia given that all three countries have different political systems and levels of development. This however should not distract from the fact that all three countries have the potential to be, and to some extent are already, important partners of the EU.

Burma in particular, given recent political reforms, is a country that should be the focus of significant attention. It’s geostrategic position between South and Southeast Asia and the potential growth of it’s economy should encourage the EU to become more involved there. The EU also should be conscious of trying to make sure that there is no regression in the political reforms that have been made as well as trying to encourage further liberalisation.

2. There is definitely the potential for the EU to be perceived as a competitor in the region. This is based on the fact that the US and China are already heavily involved in the region and may not necessarily welcome an international actor such as the EU becoming a competitor both in an economic and political sense. It is important to note though that not all countries in the region are necessarily happy with the current situation where in many cases they feel they are being forced to ‘choose’ between the US and China. The EU in this context then could becomes an alternative to this choice. For example Vietnam with its history of difficult relations with both China and the US is a country that may see increased EU involvement in the region as a positive thing.

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