After 44 years of formal partnership, ASEAN and the EU agreed to upgrade their relationship to a strategic partnership on December 1, 2020.
At first glance, this may seem like a long time coming. After all, these two regional bodies have been engaged in dialogue and agreements for several decades, so it is not completely unexpected. Yet it is also perhaps a surprise, given that the idea of a strategic partnership has been less on the radar in recent years.
The ASEAN-EU strategic partnership can best be regarded as a consolidation of the current range of cooperative arrangements and shared objectives, which is broad, commendable, and impressive compared to earlier phases of the relationship. These include economic cooperation and the EU’s ongoing support for ASEAN integration, and cooperation on such issues as the response to COVID-19, climate change and green growth, sustainable development and connectivity, maritime cooperation, and cybersecurity.
Effectiveness is a key criterion for a successful strategic partnership. Although the partnership may be limited in its ability to increase prospects for the EU to be a significant actor in the Asia-Pacific, it may prove to be effective in achieving precise goals for specific projects.
So why a strategic partnership now? And what does a strategic partnership mean for future relations between the EU and ASEAN?
The Strategy in the Strategic Partnership
There has been little clarity as to an EU definition of a strategic partnership. The EU’s strategic partnerships are heterogeneous in nature and have come about in an ad hoc fashion, demonstrating a lack of clear criteria for them. Nevertheless, they have been an important inclusion in the EU’s foreign policy particularly since the 2003 European Security Strategy and the ASEAN-EU strategic partnership is a clear sign that this is an ongoing policy for the EU.
For decades the ASEAN-EU relationship was characterized as a donor-recipient engagement. That phase may be over, with the deepening of economic cooperation that laid the ground for broader cooperation. Yet these two regional bodies are still far from effectively negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA), defaulting to EU FTAs with individual ASEAN states.
Despite this, the ASEAN-EU strategic partnership shows that they can work together. Regional integration support, including the recent ASEAN Customs Transit System, and the EU’s range of integration support packages, the most recent being the ASEAN Regional Integration Support Program (ARISE Plus), are important parts of the relationship. And there is a sense that this strategic partnership may be a genuine trailblazer for region-to-region high level collaboration, which means there may be no need for individual strategic partnerships with states in Southeast Asia. After all, the EU does not have any strategic partnerships with ASEAN member states, unlike its strategic partnership’s with South Africa (a member of the African Union) and Brazil (a member of MERCOSUR).
When the ASEAN-EU strategic partnership was announced, it was clear that it certainly elevates the relationship and commits them to summit-level meetings. This summitry is a key component of such partnerships. However, to date, there is no specific document outlining the relationship. What are the action points for this strategic partnership? For example, is it to be assumed that the current ASEAN-EU Action Plan is the basis of the partnership?
The EU has called for more recognition of its influence and standing in the Asia-Pacific. It has consistently sought to play a role in ASEAN debates regarding its future and more broadly in the Asia-Pacific security architecture. Observers will closely monitor if the strategic partnership will further integrate the EU into the regional architecture in Southeast Asia. There is, of course, the looming question remaining over the EU’s desire for membership in a key ASEAN-led summit in the region – the East Asia Summit.
The EU is seeking a security role in the Asia-Pacific and a strategic partnership may be the framework for this expansion of both its role and impact in the region, even if there is little overt recognition of the EU as a security player in the region.
To date, the sound and dependable relationship remains characterized by development cooperation and economic support. Yet tougher talk on the South China Sea by the EU is helping to sharpen its security role, or at least its stances, in the region. EU institutions’ leaders are fully cognizant that Europe needs to go beyond being simply a trade actor in the region. It may be slowly getting there, and the strategic partnership may help this.
A Question of Timing
It is clear that the region has suddenly became even more important strategically to the EU. It is interesting timing that the strategic partnership was announced soon after the signing of a deal constituting the world’s largest free-trade zone – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which brings together ASEAN and its individual free trade partners in Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.
RCEP is a political success for ASEAN, as it strengthens ASEAN centrality, rendering ASEAN an even more important partner for the EU, and enhancing ASEAN’s bargaining power not only with the EU, but in the region as part of a plurilateral trade bloc.
Current geopolitics may have also facilitated the lead-up to the strategic partnership. China’s actions in the South China Sea and the withdrawal of the United States – under former President Donald Trump – from multilateralism created a vacuum of multilateral and rules-based order support, which the EU and ASEAN could fill. It provided the opportunity for the EU and ASEAN to take on leadership roles they otherwise would not have been able to. With the change of administrations in the United States, this opportunity may be coming to an end, so it was an opportune time to consolidate the EU-ASEAN relationship. Yet it may also prove useful in the adoption of common positions in dialogues with new U.S. President Joe Biden.
Finally, the prevalence of transboundary issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the urgency of climate change has also rendered multilateral cooperation both necessary and urgent. These are concrete issues the EU and ASEAN could use to anchor their SP.
Consolidating Inter-Regional Relations
For both the EU and ASEAN, a region-to-region strategic partnership bolsters the relevance of regional governance. Yet unless navigated carefully, it may not do more than prove that regionalism is a sound approach to some collective action problems, while avoiding major challenges. The fact remains that the EU and ASEAN are not great security powers and so they may well find that agreeing on non-traditional security issues – such as COVID-19, counterterrorism initiatives, humanitarian assistance, water and food safety, and disaster management – may be a fruitful path forward with this strategic partnership.
The strategic partnership already provides a structure for external engagement. For the EU, even if recent trends had pointed to a preference for bilateral engagement with Southeast Asian states, the value of inter-regional collaboration and specific agreements is once again being brought to the fore.
The strategic partnership also reinforces ASEAN’s broader strategy with its external partners: It has added a regional organization into the mix, and now that the EU is a strategic partner of ASEAN, its only dialogue partner without this status is Canada. ASEAN’s other strategic partners are the United States, China, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.
Not only European and ASEAN observers, but also many in the Asia-Pacific region and those who seek strategic partnerships with both the EU and ASEAN will pay close attention to see if this partnership will achieve even its modest goals.
Laura Allison-Reumann is associate fellow at the EU Centre, Singapore and research fellow at the University of Melbourne.
Philomena Murray is Jean Monnet Chair ad personam and honorary professorial fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences, the University of Melbourne. She is a research associate at UNU-CRIS, Bruges and visiting research fellow at Trinity College Dublin.