How to strengthen ASEAN-EU Partnership

The Khmer Times, 13 March 2020

The European Union (EU) became the dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1977, making the EU one of the oldest partners of ASEAN.

The EU has played an important role in assisting the ASEAN member states, especially the less developed economies, to build their institutional capacity to further integrate into the regional economy.

Pursuing open economic regionalism, ASEAN and the EU are the world’s two most successful and dynamic regional organisations.

Political integration within ASEAN, however, is far less integrated compared to that in the EU due to the fact that ASEAN member countries still give priority to their sovereignty and adhere to the principle of non-interference.

In terms of identity building, the EU is trying to balance between two foreign policy objectives, namely building a normative power based on the principles of human rights and democracy and promoting a trading power based on commercial interests. The signing of the trade and investment agreement with Vietnam in 2019 illustrates that the EU gives more priority to commercial interests than values and norms.

However, it is paradoxical when it comes to the EU’s relations with Cambodia in which the EU puts human rights and democratic values first. This is a clear double standard being practiced by the EU.

Both ASEAN and the EU are grappling with the myriad challenges deriving from global power shift, rising protectionism and unilateralism, and the decline of multilateral system and global governance. To surmount these challenges, ASEAN and the EU are compelled to work closer together to strengthen open societies and a rules-based multilateral system.

The EU wishes to upgrade its partnership with ASEAN to a strategic partnership. However, the proposal remains on hold. The EU and ASEAN need to build shared understanding and intentionality on multilateralism, overcome political and strategic trust deficit, take concrete measures to increase their presence in each other’s region, and promote engagement across sectors. Here are some specific cooperation areas to be considered.

First, both partners need to forge common understanding and position on rules-based international order and multilateralism.  Even among the ASEAN member countries they don’t have common standard on what constitute a rules-based international order. Therefore, ASEAN and the EU should further promote multi-track dialogues and consultation on the concept of rules-based international order and rules-based connectivity so that common understanding and position can be forged.

Second, ASEAN and the EU should expand their cooperation on connectivity projects to also include security connectivity, which refers to connecting security issues, connecting multiple stakeholders, and connecting knowledge to address common non-traditional security threats such as climate change and pandemic diseases. As both continents are scrabbling with the outbreak of Covid-19, information and knowledge sharing is critical at the moment.

Third, the EU needs to be mindful of trust deficit and policy gaps. The EU’s positions on the Rohingya issue in Myanmar, palm oil issue with Indonesia and Malaysia (with the concern over environmental protection), Sharia law in Brunei, anti-drug campaign in the Philippines, and the partial withdrawal of preferential trading treatment under Everything-but-Arms (EBA) scheme from Cambodia adversely affect the quality of the ASEAN-EU partnership.

Many ASEAN members are sensitive to foreign interference into their domestic affairs, as the memories of colonialism and imperialism remain alive in their strategic culture, nationalist narrative, and regime legitimization. The EU should avoid touching on this political nerve.

It is therefore necessary for ASEAN and the EU to be more sensitive to certain issues that might derail or hurt the strategic and political trust between the two regional blocs. The health of the bilateral relationship between the EU with each ASEAN member state has strong correlation with the quality of the overall ASEAN-EU partnership. Bilateralism and multilateralism are intertwined in the case.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said in February 2020 that the EU has difficult relationship with some ASEAN member states such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, Myanmar, and Cambodia, and this affects the progress of advancing ASEAN-EU relations. Notably, in January 2019, Malaysia and Indonesia deferred ASEAN’s decision in elevating its relations with the EU towards strategic partnership because of the EU’s discrimination against palm oil.

ASEAN and the EU must further exchange their global perspective so that they could build common position on global issues and challenges, and to possibly harmonise their worldviews especially with regard to how to strengthen effective, coherent and cohesive multilateralism and multilateral coordination.

The 13th ASEM Summit to be held in Cambodia in November 2020 will be an opportunity for Asian and European leaders to reflect, fathom and envision together to resolve some of the global pressing issues such as climate change, epidemic disease, socio-economic inequality, fragmented societies, violent extremism, and the declining multilateralism.

The task ahead for the members of ASEAN and the EU is to build a united position against protectionism and unilateralism and to promote effective and proactive multilateralism. Moreover, they need to work closer together to ensure fair share of growth, promote social justice and inclusion across the regions.

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