Thailand wise to act as EU-Asean conduit
The first paragraph of the Council of the European Union conclusion on Thailand, released last Monday after the EU foreign ministerial meeting, provided an insight into the state of EU-Thai relations. It says:
"The Council reaffirms the importance it attaches to EU relations with Thailand. The Council is appreciative of the constructive role which Thailand plays as the current country coordinator for EU-Asean Dialogue Relations."
In fact, it was the second sentence which was more important. It recognises and sums up the constructive role played by Thailand as coordinator of Asean-EU ties. This role must not be understated.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
At the Asean ministerial meeting in August, Asean and the EU jointly released common positions on climate change for the first time. It was a response to the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Together, they reaffirmed their commitment to cooperation in addressing the shared challenge of climate change. In this respect, the EU pledged full support for Asean to implement adaptation and mitigation measures during the pre-2020 period and beyond. This action was very significant as it marks the growing confidence of both regional organisations in working together on global issues.
It was not surprising that president of the European Council Donald Tusk was able to attend the luncheon meeting of the 12th East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Philippines on Nov 13. The Thai coordinator was credited with convincing Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to include the EU and Canada on the list of invited guests. Earlier, there had been some reluctance to attend due to Brussels' harsh criticism of Mr Duterte's anti-drug campaign. As it turned out, the Philippines, as the coordinator of Asean-Canada ties, was not happy with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's criticism of the country's internal policies.
Showing-up at the EAS function was considered a positive first step for the EU and Canada to join the premium security forum as full members in the future. The EU and Canada are eyeing strategic partnership status. Even though Asean and the EU have four decades of ties, they lack the weight and substance of those that Asean has with other strategic partners such as China, Japan or even New Zealand. Thailand, which will serve as Asean chair in 2019, is confident of welcoming the EU as an EAS member in the near future. Now, it is incumbent on Singapore, the 2018 chair, to decide whether to invite the two countries to the 13th EAS event.
As overall Asean-EU ties quickly improve, common activities have intensified. Last month both organisations jointly addressed ways to achieve the sustainable development goals outlined by the United Nations and Asean. Together they promised to exchange best practices on the role of regional integration in promoting economic growth, and on narrowing the development gap with a people-centred approach ensuring that no one is left behind. In addition, they aim to tackle the challenge of climate change and promote green growth. As Asean-EU coordinator, Thailand also wants to see gender mainstreaming in the sustainable development process.
Few people know that one tangible effect of better Asean-EU ties in the past year has been an improvement in Thai-EU relations, which was well explained by the Council's latest assessment. Indeed, the new EU attitude is long overdue. After the May 2014 military coup, all ties with the EU were stalled. In fact, the EU was the last group of nations to normalise ties with Thailand after the coup. After US President Donald Trump invited Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to visit Washington DC in October, normalising ties with its ally after more than three years of frozen relations, the EU realised that the time had come to do the same. Unlike Mr Trump, who can decide single-handedly, the EU has 27 member nations with different views pertaining to the current situation in Thailand. Any attempt to conduct dialogue and business must have the support of all members.
Therefore, the EU Council cannot avoid taking a tough stance calling for the urgent restoration of the democratic process in Thailand through credible and inclusive elections and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. This general EU appeal fits in with the Thai government's framework and time frame for political development.
While local stakeholders, especially gagged political parties and civil society organisations, are sceptical about the government's true intentions of fulfilling those demands, the EU realised it could no longer wait because other countries already have a strong foothold of engagement with Thailand. Doubtless, to make up for lost opportunities, both the EU and Thailand will speed up talks on free trade and settling the nagging issue of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
Beyond trade and fishing, the EU has a new perspective on Thailand as a key strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific region. In short, Thailand is a champion of the EU in Asean. The newly hyped depiction of geographical areas stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific has already raised eyebrows in many Asean countries. For one reason, Mr Trump should have mentioned that Asean lies in between two huge oceans. At the latest Asean summit in Manila, only Thailand responded positively to the Indo-Pacific concept, saying this new geo-strategic location is a fulcrum that Asean must engage and act in solidarity with and promote its centrality.
When the concept was floated in 2013 by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa in Washington, Asean ignored the overture, with some members commenting that it was far ahead of its time. In fact, at the time, Indonesia was trying to promote an Asean-led regional architecture based on the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). Mr Natalegawa wanted to expand the treaty to cover all East Asian countries as the new norm and under rule-based principles. Thailand also wants to promote the TAC at the global level as part of efforts to show the world how the group's members have avoided war among themselves and made rapid economic progress.
With the growing superpower rivalries, new security frameworks are likely to emerge. Asean should have taken up the Indo-Pacific concept back then, when the grouping could have further engaged and managed the security landscape long before the major powers got involved.
While the EU is a major player in other parts of the world, EU security influence in the Asia-Pacific is not discernible. The EU is at a crossroads as far as the emerging regional architecture of East Asia is concerned. Although Europe long ago established its security organisation, known as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in 1975, the recent power shifts and Mr Trump's growing disdain for Europe has prompted the EU to intensify both economic and strategic ties with Asean. At this point, Thailand is the catalyst for EU penetration in the region.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs