Why Germany is seeking deeper ties with Asean

Why Germany is seeking deeper ties with Asean

With supersonic speed in terms of the decision and process, Germany will accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in around two weeks' time. If everything goes as planned on the German side, which requires cabinet endorsement, there will be a signing ceremony in Bangkok during the 35th Asean Summit from Oct 31-Nov 2. Bahrain will also join the ceremony.

Germany's accession to the TAC took the Asean authorities by surprise as it came out of the blue. Last month, Germany began to sound out all Asean members about the possibility of joining the TAC. Without any Asean objections, Berlin proceeded quickly to become a signatory; just in time, too, as the Asean foreign ministers are scheduled to discuss Bahrain's TAC status. It was only two years ago that Germany was accorded development partner status in Vientiane.

Last year, an Asean-Germany Development Cooperation Committee was set up to oversee the ties. Both sides have discussed and identified new areas for future cooperation, including technical and skills training, tourism, green and renewable energy, sustainable development, promotion of small and medium industries, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Germany has a few reasons to make such a dramatic undertaking. First of all, Germany has a long history of engagement with Asean, both bilaterally and within the EU framework. By signing the TAC, the country is thinking in a strategic way that could lead to a bigger profile in the Asean scheme of things. Throughout the past decades, economic matters and providing development assistance have been its main focus.

Truth be told, Asean always wanted Europe's most powerful member to join the 1976 treaty, which advocates a universal principle of non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of member countries. Berlin had been reluctant to adopt a higher profile outside the EU framework, but with new dramatic changes in Europe, the Brexit saga in particular, and the weakening of multilateralism and rules-based governance, Germany thinks now is the time to recommit itself to these norms and values at all levels.

At the recent UN General Assembly, Germany and France launched the "Alliance of Multilateralism" to boost international support for multilateral engagement and cooperation both outside and inside the United Nations. The alliance is a loose network of countries that also supports joint efforts on inequality, climate change and digitalisation.

In addition, given the unpredictability of the EU's future and its ties with major powers such as the US and China, each EU member is looking for additional channels to enhance its bilateral ties and preserve national interests -- Germany is no exception. Within Europe, France had the foresight to accede to the TAC in 2006 -- the first European nation to do so -- followed by the EU and UK in Phnom Penh in 2012. Paris even came out with its own Indo-Pacific strategy due to its colonial past and maritime strategy in the Pacific Ocean.

In 1998, the TAC was amended to allow countries outside Southeast Asia to accede to the treaty. China and India were the first two major powers to sign up in 2003, followed by Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and other dialogue countries.

In the EU's case, it took nearly 15 years before Brussels submitted its application, in December 2006. Obviously, the process of accession took time, as the grouping had to amend the TAC for the third time to allow so-called "regional organisations" to accede. It was signed in 2010 but entered into force in 2012.

At this juncture, Asean-EU relations are not smooth, due to the dispute over palm oil with the world's two major exporters of the commodity, Indonesia and Malaysia, which happen to be leading Asean members. Although Asean agreed in principle to upgrade the EU to a strategic partner early this year, the grouping so far has refused to make it official until the EU settles the dispute.

Thus, the broader EU-Asean relations and cooperation would continue to suffer and, in the long haul, be held hostage by the lack of consensus among Asean members over issues related norms and values. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the EU continued to isolate Myanmar and most recently Cambodia and Thailand for perceived violations of human rights and media freedom.

It is not hard to forecast that, with the three most powerful EU members signing the TAC, other EU members such as Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and others would follow suit sooner or later. This trend is also in line with the Asean leaders' intention to expand the non-aggression and cooperation pact beyond the region. The TAC, which now has 39 signatories covering all geographical locations, is the grouping's key tool to engage all dialogue partners in multi-dimensional cooperation as outlined in the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

In addition, the principles and objectives of the TAC are more or less similar to those enshrined in the EU Treaty, especially those related to Common Foreign and Defence Policy. For instance, Articles 4, 9 and 11 have common positions with the TAC.

With the decline of the United States' strategic reliability in the region, the TAC will continue to attract more signatories in the years to come, further strengthening the regional code of conduct as a pillar for regional peace and stability. It is not farfetched to state that the TAC could morph into something broader and bigger, namely a Treaty of Cooperation and Friendship in the Indo-Pacific, as discussions on a future regional architecture are gaining momentum.

At the upcoming East Asia Summit early next month, the AOIP will be discussed among the world's most powerful leaders. The role of Asean chair will be crucial to ensure that Asean continues to engage outside powers in balancing and strategic ways.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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