EU, Asean are 'natural partners'
text size

EU, Asean are 'natural partners'

My visit to Jakarta and Asean last week underlined the European Union's (EU) commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, and it reconfirmed a clear demand in the region for more cooperation and EU presence.

All my interlocutors stressed that they want to shape a broad common agenda for cooperation: from the pandemic and recovery, to connectivity and trade, from the green agenda to the key area of security.

As the EU, we are well aware that the global centre of gravity is shifting towards the Indo-Pacific region. It creates 60% of global GDP and two-thirds of global growth. It is the second largest destination for EU exports and home to four out of the EU's top ten trading partners. Around 40% of the EU's foreign trade passes through the South China Sea. The EU is also the top investor in and development assistance provider for the Indo-Pacific.

The EU is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (Asean) number one development partner, and its third trade partner and investor. EU exports to Asean countries grew from €54 billion (about 2 trillion baht) in 2010 to €85 billion in 2019 and our imports grew even more, from €72 billion to €125 billion.

These numbers remind us of our strong connection and the big stakes the EU has in this dynamic part of the world.

The Indo-Pacific region is the future, but the present is just as important. Insecurity and tensions are rising, threatening the order and balance of this region. Stability, development and economic growth rests on openness, on stable and shared rules and shared security, and the EU's interest is precisely this: that the regional order stays rules-based and free and open for all. We can contribute to this significantly and our regional partners, who view the EU as a trusted and reliable actor, recognise this.

Last year, we upgraded EU-Asean relations between the two most advanced regional integration schemes of the world to a Strategic Partnership, after we had established dialogue relations in 1977. This was long overdue and important, because in a world of power politics and general uncertainty, Asean and the EU should pull together. Our bonds with Asean are founded on a joint commitment to rules-based multilateralism. Currently, Asean is a bit like the "swing state" in the wider Indo-Pacific, where the US and China are throwing their weight around. Asean countries are united by their wish not to be cajoled by US-China strategic competition. Asean is the nucleus around which inclusive forms of regional cooperation are built, and regional integration is a way to safeguard our respective "strategic autonomy".

The EU launched in April an Indo-Pacific strategy, with one key message: we want to step up our engagement and work with our partners to boost trade and investment, economic openness and a sustainable approach to connectivity in the region. Besides being an economic powerhouse, the EU is also ready to be a political and security actor in the region and to do more work on strategic and security issues, in particular maritime security. We already have a dialogue with Asean on maritime security cooperation, and are currently extending our Critical Maritime Routes Programme, which strengthens regional maritime surveillance capacities from the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia. We are also exploring options to enhance the EU's maritime presence in the vast Indo-Pacific space.

Furthermore, we have to step up cooperation to respond to the ongoing "democratic recession" worldwide and the growing attacks on pluralism and political freedoms. Myanmar is the most dramatic case in point in this regard. The EU looks to Asean leadership in this situation and we are ready to back more regional engagement. Given the refusal by the military junta to engage in negotiations and their growing repression, the EU is also working on a new sanctions package to further defend human rights. Many countries and certainly the people in this region share our view: these values and principles are universal and people should determine their own political future and have their rights protected. Often, as we see in Myanmar, the erosion of such rights and freedoms comes with severe consequences for one's personal safety and security.

Beyond the regional angle, the EU and Thailand are close partners and I look forward to making our relationship even stronger in the future. We see eye to eye on many issues, including the necessity to preserve a rules-based international order, to strengthen multilateralism and regional cooperation and to strive to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

We have a mutual interest in discussing good governance, geopolitical, security-related and human rights issues in a spirit of openness and true friendship. I hope we shall be soon in a position to finalise a long-standing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which will be the foundation of a more ambitious relationship between the EU and Thailand, more apt to take on the huge challenges in front of us.

The EU's message is clear: we want to do more with Asean, in Southeast Asia and in the wider region. Asean, and the people of the region, can count on the EU to be a strong and reliable partner as we jointly tackle the challenges of our time.

Josep Borrell is Vice-President of the European Commission.

Do you like the content of this article?