Op-Ed: EU-ASEAN Relations – Guiding Hand or Chiding Finger?

Op-ed written by Alysha Saraswathy Ratnam - Alysha Ratnam is the Acquis EU Law & Policy 2020 summer student. Alysha is currently an undergraduate law student at the National University of Singapore.

On 12 February 2020, the European Commission announced their decision to partially suspend Cambodia’s ‘Everything but Arms’ (EBA) trade privileges with the European Union (EU) due to the serious deterioration of Cambodian human and labour rights. Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy argued this suspension reflects the EU’s strong commitment to democracy and the Cambodian people. On paper, Borrell has painted the EU as a moralistic institution driven by values. Upon deeper analysis, this EBA suspension is the latest in a string of actions demonstrating the EU’s condescension and belittlement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). To improve EU-ASEAN relations, the EU needs to re-evaluate their view of ASEAN, retain its ‘soft touch’ foreign policy and redefine the boundaries of an EU-ASEAN relationship. 

The EU views its relationship with ASEAN through an asymmetric donor-recipient lens. EU broad support for ASEAN regional integration exceeded EUR200 million from 2014-2020, making the EU ASEAN’s largest donor. Furthermore, the EU is ASEAN’s second largest trade partner and largest market for most Southeast Asian nations with export-driven economies. As an irreplaceable economic player in supporting the ASEAN project, the EU believes it is entitled to impose its values and standards on ASEAN without appreciating or respecting ASEAN interests, contradicting the very definition of multilateralism. 

 ASEAN capitals therefore feel condescended by the EU, increasing ASEAN hostility and straining EU-ASEAN relations. For instance, ASEAN has put its strategic partnership with the EU on hold following the latter’s assault on the Southeast Asian palm oil industry. While the EU’s palm oil import restrictions were motivated by valid environmental concerns, their severe economic and political implications on Indonesia and Malaysia, major palm oil exporters, were not considered. Furthermore, the EU’s very public announcement of their decision to phase out palm oil led to Indonesia and Malaysia feeling discriminated against and embarrassed by the public chiding. This highlights how the EU adopts a proselytising and belittling attitude towards ASEAN, not deeming them worthy of an equal partnership. 

 The success of an EU-ASEAN multilateral partnership lies in the EU’s ability to reassess its perspective of ASEAN and view it as an equal partner. The EU cannot dangle its economic value as a carrot in front of ASEAN, so as to force EU principles upon what the EU perceives as ‘lesser-than’ nations. The EU should instead appreciate that it has a great deal to gain and learn from ASEAN. For instance, EU leaders may be able to successfully quell populist and xenophobic sentiments by learning how to embrace diversity from their ASEAN counterparts. We do not live in a homogenous world, so there is bound to be a divergence between EU and ASEAN ideals. The EU should understand and respect these differences, instead of belittling and scorning them. 

 That being said, the EU financial strength gives it a responsibility to uphold fundamental values such as human rights, demonstrated when it partially suspended Cambodia’s EBA. This raises difficult questions such as what constitutes ‘fundamental values’, and who decides what these ‘fundamental values’ are. Potential solutions could entail EU and ASEAN officials deciding upon specific, non-negotiable fundamental values, and setting up working groups to discuss these issues bilaterally. Should the EU view ASEAN as an equal, it will be able to better appreciate ASEAN’s intricacies, such as the importance of ASEAN’s national-regional nexus and the complex challenges ASEAN faces. This will improve cooperation between ASEAN and the EU, as the latter can tailor its policies and initiatives to be mutually beneficial. For instance, the EU could focus more on pursuing a free trade agreement (FTA) with ASEAN as a whole instead of with individual nations. This in turn would facilitate ASEAN integration as it protects ASEAN members without FTAs from being wounded should the EU increase investment in only countries with FTAs. With an EU-ASEAN FTA, the EU will have access to 10 foreign markets, greatly increasing consumer choice and investment opportunities, thus boosting the EU’s economy. Given the plenitude of benefits that come from a cooperative and multilateral EU-ASEAN partnership, it is difficult to comprehend why the EU insists on adopting a condescending attitude towards ASEAN. 

Perhaps the EU’s condescension towards ASEAN comes from its desire to reposition itself in a changed world ridden by US-China rivalry. The EU’s foreign policy is characterised by its ‘soft touch’, which Chad Damro, a Lecturer in International and European Politics at the University of Edinburgh, defines as the EU’s ability to influence foreign governments through inducements of better trade, rather than through force or violence. Many view the EU’s soft touch as its biggest weakness. Judy Dempsey, a non-resident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe argued the EU’s soft touch puts it in the throes of a geostrategic crisis as with its philosophy anchored in a peace project, the bloc cannot do credible defence, lacking the strength of a hard power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed these sentiments, arguing the EU needs a second leg to stand on. 

Therefore, the EU’s increased assertiveness and condescension towards ASEAN countries could be prompted by its desire to reinstate its authority and demonstrate its ability to wield power. Why did the EU specifically choose ASEAN as the recipient of its new forceful foreign policy? This could be due to the fact that the EU views ASEAN as a weaker and lesser-than power, once more demonstrating how the EU belittles ASEAN. 

 The EU needs to consider whether its domineering approach towards ASEAN is an appropriate reassessment of its ‘soft touch’ foreign policy. Firstly, the EU’s harshness towards ASEAN is largely focused on trade, demonstrated by Cambodia’s partially suspended EBA and restrictions on palm oil exports. Historically, such approaches have proven ineffective, demonstrated by the League of Nations’ unsuccessful trade sanctions against Italy during the 1935 Abyssinian Crisis. Today, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen remained adamant his country would not bow down to the EU’s demands, and believes he can now turn to China. Secondly, the EU’s assertive foreign policy infringes upon the very values it seeks to protect. Palm oil exports make up 5% and 7% of Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s respective economies. Trade restrictions imposed by the EU will inevitably remove livelihoods and increase poverty, worsening human rights. Lastly, no matter what harsh trade sanctions the EU takes against ASEAN, they are not truly diverting from their ‘soft touch’ foreign policy. The EU still lacks a credible military component, without which the EU cannot hope to assert strong influence. Its trade-focused assertive approach towards ASEAN does just the opposite. After all, escalating to economic sanctions or revoking preferences against developing countries demonstrates the EU has run out of channels of influence, thus highlighting its weakness and undermining its power. 

Thus, instead of its new assertive approach towards ASEAN, the EU should not be so quick to dismiss its ‘soft touch’ policy. In a world fraught with tension, conflict and nationalist agendas, the EU’s transformative capacity without resorting to force reflects its distinctive nature in global politics, as Mustafa Kutlay, a lecturer at City University of London argues. The EU’s financial prowess, demonstrated by it having authority over the world’s largest market and one of its biggest central banks ensures it will always remain relevant and a strong power, giving it the distinct advantage of not requiring force to assert itself. The EU should use this advantage to pursue economic diplomacy with ASEAN. This economic diplomacy must not entail condescension-laden threats, but should instead involve the EU treating ASEAN as an equal and being mindful towards ASEAN values and interests. This will lessen ASEAN hostility towards the EU, and bring about a new era of compromise, cooperation and hopefully friendship between both regional organisations. 

Finally, the EU needs to be mindful that the essence of economic diplomacy is, as Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, an economist and trade lawyer argued, the choice to engage the world for what it really is rather than using reality as an excuse to disengage. When dealing with ASEAN, the EU has pivoted towards moral conditionality for trade access, with Cecilia Malmström, the EU Commissioner for Trade stressing that EU trade policy needs to be led by EU values. This once more demonstrates how the EU prides its own values over ASEAN values, thus belittling ASEAN and not viewing them as worthy of equal partnership. 

The EU needs to acknowledge there is a serious divide between their ideals and practical realities. While hoping to be a normative power and shape ASEAN norms on human rights and governance, the EU is also hoping to pursue a strategic relationship with ASEAN. While being a normative and strategic actor are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the former is certainly not conducive to the latter if not decoupled wisely, as presently demonstrated. For instance, the EU’s partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA has severely threatened Cambodia’s economy, endangering thousands of jobs mostly held by women. While it is acceptable for the EU to publicly criticise severe breaches of fundamental rights in ASEAN countries, it cannot use trade incentives as a Trojan horse and still expect to be ASEAN’s strategic partner. Thus, the EU and ASEAN should define clearer boundaries in their relationship. Both regional organisations should step back from grand declarations of a ‘strategic partnership’ and instead return to substantial dialogue on basic expectations. The EU could use its advantage as a normative power to quietly work with ASEAN towards mutually acceptable compromises. This removes the public demonstration of superiority and condescension the EU usually adopts towards ASEAN, allowing ASEAN to feel they are finally treated as an equal partner and no longer belittled. 

Strong EU-ASEAN cooperation is vital for both regions. Amid rising protectionism and geopolitical competitions, an EU-ASEAN friendship would allow both to prosper. ASEAN is expected to be the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030, and as a supporter of free trade and globalisation, it will provide great benefit to the EU in its struggle to be a power-balancer between US-China rivalry. ASEAN in turn would require the EU’s camaraderie to ensure no major power can exercise hegemony in the region. The road to such a partnership requires strategic trust, where both organisations have aligned interests, common goals  and assurance invidious actions will not be taken despite the inevitable conflicts and tensions that arise along the way. Hopefully both EU and ASEAN are willing to take the necessary steps forward in realising this aspiration.