Trans-Pacific View

EU-Asia Relations: New Game Changers

Insights from Nicola Casarini and Bridget Welsh.

Mercy A. Kuo
EU-Asia Relations: New Game Changers

Speakers at the John Cabot University and Istituto Affari Internazionale conference on EU-Asia relations.

Credit: Mercy Kuo

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Nicola Casarini, a fellow of Istituto Affari Internazionali, Italy’s leading think tank, and Dr. Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science and director of Asian outreach at John Cabot University in Rome, is the 189th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” 

John Cabot University and the Istituto Affari Internazionale convened a timely conference on new game changers in EU-Asia relations. Identify the top three takeaways.

The conference discussed the broad shifts impacting EU-Asia relations. Attention centered on seven major developments: 1) tensions in the transatlantic relationship between Europe and the United States arising during the Trump administration; 2) fragmentation caused by internal splits within the European Union, especially from Brexit; 3) the important rise of China not only as the second largest global economy but through its embrace of its global leadership role under Xi Jinping; 4) dynamics in the China-U.S. relationship and pressures to adopt positions in binary contentions over trade and security; 5) the increasing importance of other Asian powers, notably Japan, India, and to a lesser extent ASEAN; 6) economic realignments driving Europe toward Asian markets; and 7) changes taking place in global connectivity, industry, and digital governance.

Of these, the most important takeaways are the recognition that the EU and in some cases individual European countries are charting their own paths in their relationships with Asia, increasingly differing with the United States and, at times, each other. This is the product of strains within traditional alliances as well as a growing prioritization of business interests over values as China’s role in Europe has gained greater traction. The EU-Asia relationship is undergoing change as a product of shifts within the EU itself, with Brexit effectively removing the United Kingdom as the important gateway to Asia,  and the rise of authoritarian and populist pressures within Europe shaping policy responses. Arguably, there is less consensus within the EU on Asia policy. Finally, the EU’s role in Asia has grown in importance with the decline of the United States and rise of multipolarity, a role that Europeans have yet to fully appreciate, understand, or embrace. A crucial part of the rethinking involves moving away from a focus on trade to center on issues of connectivity and governance.

Explain the critical role of Southeast Asia in EU-Asia relations. 

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This role is especially significant in Southeast Asia, where the European Union and European countries are leaders for shared democratic values and can play an important role to balance China’s power. Europe and Southeast Asia need each other not only for economic reasons of investment, markets, technology sharing, and development, but also for better management of the negative consequences of globalization, shifts in the global order, rising authoritarianism, and emergence of new security threats. The souring of relations over the discriminatory decision on palm oil and its negative impact on EU-ASEAN strategic partnership is harming a valuable relationship for both regions.

What is the impact of geopolitical risks in Northeast Asia on EU-Asia relations?

The European Union has stepped up its involvement in Northeast Asia in recent times, following the latest developments of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) ballistic missile program, which represent a new type of threat for Europe. There are doubts in regard to the actual ability of the North Korean army to control the re-entry phase of these missiles. However, and even considering the less generous estimates, these missiles would potentially be able to hit large parts of Europe. Moreover, the escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula puts at risk Europe’s growing economic interests in the area.

The EU is not a security provider in the region, where it is mainly perceived as a trading bloc endowed with a formidable array of soft power capabilities. The EU and its member states are the biggest donors of development and humanitarian aid in the region and have adopted harsh sanctions against Pyongyang to increase pressure on the regime. More recently, the EU has begun rethinking its policy towards the Korean Peninsula, following [Republic of Korea] ROK President Moon Jae-in’s engagement policy towards the North and new dynamics in the inter-Korean dialogue and reconciliation process.

The EU continues to back diplomatic initiatives in Northeast Asia aimed at promoting regional cooperation, multilateralism, and trust building – such as the trilateral cooperation mechanism among China, Japan, and South Korea – in stark contrast to the Trump administration, which shows contempt for multilateralism and institutions, preferring bilateral bargaining and power relations instead.

Which Asian countries are game-changers in strengthening EU-Asia interlinkages?    

While attention is centered on China, which is the global driver of evolving changes, three important countries are being overlooked. The first of these is Japan, which has forged a close relationship with Europe and is playing a more prominent role in security in Asia as a whole. The second is India, where ties with Europe have strengthened, and whose increasing role contributes to further multipolarity. The third is South Korea, which has become Europe’s most important security partner in the region, having become the first (and so far, the only) Asian nation to have signed in 2014 a Framework Participation Agreement, ratified by Seoul in 2016, aimed at facilitating the ROK’s participation in EU Common Security and Defense Policy missions and operations.

How should U.S. policymakers be rethinking engagement in transatlantic relations visa-a-vis Asia? 

The bottom line is that U.S. policymakers compartmentalize their relations with Asia, separate from that of Europe. Today, Europe policy is Asia policy and vice versa. Little attention is being placed on the effects of trade wars, digital contestation, battles to protect security lanes, and criticisms of traditional allies outside of those directly involved. It is the spillover effects that are contributing to the emergence of a new global order.

The transatlantic allies issued a joint statement  ̶  the only one so far  ̶  on the Asia-Pacific in July 2012. But competition for market shares in Asia and difference over China have made it difficult for U.S.-EU cooperation to become structured and the spirit of cooperation between the U.S. and EU has eroded. The Trump administration – though not a meaningful supporter of the EU as a global actor  ̶  should however rethink its engagement in transatlantic relations vis-a-vis Asia in a more inclusive manner so as to promote not only U.S. interests the but the shared democratic values and economic prosperity that have been the cornerstone of transatlantic ties.