Common ground

Common ground

Asean and the EU stake out positions as non-aligned powers in a region where two superpowers are contending.

The European Union (EU) is turning east as it seeks to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific region, where the major events of the current century will unfold, by forming closer relationships with Asean and its members.

The EU has not had much of a presence in the region, with member states' navies generally deployed closer to home, including the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf and the coast of Africa, said Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

"But we are going to show a stronger presence. You will see more European fleets going toward the South China Sea," Mr Borrell said during a recent interview with Asia Focus and Indonesian media outlets in Jakarta.

"It is not a 'fleet' like the American one -- we do not have a fleet -- but through a coordinated maritime presence of our different warships of different nationalities," he said.

"The history of the 21st century will be written in the Indo Pacific."

The "battlefield" of the 20th century was largely in Europe but attention has been shifting to the Indo-Pacific region where the two biggest global powers -- the United States and China -- are at odds with each other and competing for influence. The EU considers itself on the same page as Asean, as a power that is not aligned with either side of this "world stage".

It also seeks to foster a multipolar world with different powers that both Asean and the EU can represent, even though the latter shares a lot of similar values with the US when it comes to political and economic systems.

"It does not mean that our interests will be the same," said Mr Borrell, referring to the US and the EU. "We have to keep a certain degree of autonomy and try to avoid a new cold war or a confrontation between two big powers."

The EU for its part has a stake in its efforts to boost its visibility in the region, since 40% of its trade passes through the South China Sea. The value of its exports to Asean countries -- the second largest EU export destination -- grew from €54 billion in 2010 to €85 billion in 2019. Imports from Asean expanded in the same period from €72 billion to €125 billion, making the strategic waterway a "vein" for the bloc, said Mr Borrell.

As the global feud between America and China takes centre stage closer to home, Indonesia used a recent meeting of the region's top defence officials to call for regional unity in efforts to maintain peace and security in the Indo Pacific region, which covers vast swathe of territory from the Indian to Pacific oceans, with Asean in the middle.

"Asean needs to view this region as unified as a whole and to not let mightier powers potentially divide us," Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto said during the 15th Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM), which Brunei as the current regional chair hosted online on June 15.

Gen Subianto also called for Asean to maintain its centrality in the broader region, as laid out in the Asean Outlook in Indo Pacific report that the bloc adopted in 2019. The report was created to guide Asean's engagement on both sides of the region and encourages major regional powers to promote mutually beneficial cooperation for all parties involved.

With security being one of three areas for cooperation with Asean -- the other two are economic prosperity and environmental sustainability -- the EU has applied to be considered as an observer in the ADMM, Mr Borrell said.

"We have a lot of things that we are already doing, for example, we have provided 800 million euros in assistance to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. We will increase this in the future just to fight the pandemic," he added.

The EU also supports the resolution adopted by Asean in an attempt to end the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar, though the military junta there has shown little interest in participating, even after being invited to the Jakarta meeting where the resolution was adopted.

In the meantime, the EU is continuing with its "carrot-and-stick" approach to dealing directly with Myanmar, pressuring the military and their business cronies while helping the country's hard-pressed citizens.

"We are putting sanctions on the military and its entities, because the military in Myanmar is very powerful from the economic point of view, and we are providing humanitarian assistance," said Mr Borrell. "We have allocated 20 million euros for immediate assistance to the people of Myanmar."

The EU, he added, is very much in favour of Asean's proposal to appoint a mediator who would seek talks with both the military regime and the pro-democracy parties in Myanmar.

The appointment of a mediator is part of the five-point consensus that Asean leaders agreed on during an emergency summit in Jakarta on April 24 to address the political violence in Myanmar.

Other points included urging the military regime to immediately stop violence against its opponents, for all parties to exercise self-restraint, and for a dialogue that aims for a peaceful solution for the interests of the people in Myanmar.

During his visit to Jakarta, Mr Borrell met with Asean Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi, shortly before Mr Lim made his trip to Myanmar with Erywan Pehin Yusof, the Brunei Foreign Minister who also serves as the chairman of the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting.

The two Bruneian diplomats met with the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and submitted names of nominees for the special envoy proposed by Asean member states.

However, the junta's position continues to be that it will not allow the visit of a special envoy until there is more "stability" in the country.

The results of the Asean representatives' trip to Myanmar were discussed during a briefing in Chongqing, China, ahead of the Asean-China Foreign Ministers' Meeting on June 7.

"In response to the briefing, I urged for the immediate appointment of the special envoy," Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said after the Chongqing meeting, adding that the envoy must be equipped with clear policy guidance as per the five-point consensus mandates.

She also called on the Myanmar military's commitment to providing access for the envoy.

But Asean is yet to appoint the mediator more than two months after the meeting in Jakarta, which has only reaffirmed sceptics' views about whether member states can truly present a united front in resolving political tensions in Myanmar.

Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have been outspoken about the need for a meaningful Asean-led solution. But Thailand tends to prefer the behind-the-scenes, general-to-general contacts that it has long used when dealing with Myanmar. In the current situation, however, neither approach appears to be finding much traction.

Mr Borrell said the EU was ready to do its part but stressed that a regional solution would be the key.

"We are going to support as much as we can their diplomatic activity. The problem is for Asean to solve, but if we can help, we will be very happy to do it," he said.

"It is for Asean to take the lead in this process."

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