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En Route to Stronger EU-ASEAN Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific: Pragmatic or Normative-Based?

For decades, ASEAN and the EU have been facing logjams in closer relations due to perceived fundamental differences in norms, values, and principles. In response, many researchers have suggested the need to advance a pragmatic approach to inter-regionalism as the EU’s idealism is seen as hampering EU-ASEAN relations (Di Floristella, 2020a; Gilson, 2020). Recently, there has been a shift in the EU's approach to a more pragmatic relationship as the EU wants to engage with ASEAN in the political-security arena (Di Floristella, 2020b). The EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership in December 2020 is a breakthrough for ASEAN and EU relations beyond the economic-pragmatic approach, as it covers the political-security dimension. However, ASEAN’s response to the EU’s changing approach is not yet adequate as it does not yet see the EU as a major player in the region.

EU’s Engagement in ASEAN: Beyond Pragmatic Approach

The pragmatism or idealism dichotomic debate as implied in Gilson (2020) often suggests that the EU needs to adopt a more pragmatic approach. It often assumes that the one undermines the other, while both could be complementary in reality. Nonetheless, taking EU-ASEAN relations into merely pragmatic consideration undermines the EU's capacity as a normative power and reduces the scope of potential relations with ASEAN. In recent years, we have seen a milestone in engagement between EU and ASEAN through the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership. It is a mischaracterization to put this partnership into a merely strategic and pragmatic frame as it contains EU and ASEAN’s shared norms of forming open, inclusive, effective multilateralism, and rules-based regional order in the Indo-Pacific (EU & ASEAN Strategic Partners, 2021). Beyond its material foundation on common issues such as trade, development, and Covid-19 recovery, this partnership underlines the paramount importance of a rules-and values-based approach as the basis of ASEAN-EU relations in the Indo-Pacific.

In the current geopolitical landscape, the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership which consists of the promulgation of the EU’s normative ideas and its role in shaping a multilateral, rules-based order, could be interpreted as the EU maintaining a neutral image as guardian of the rule of law, promoting openness, and sustaining a good relationship with relevant regional powers (European Commission, n.d.). The EU’s standards and norms are promoted through dialogues, meetings, and even concrete actions such as securing sea lines of communication, capacity-building, enhancing naval presence by EU member states in the Indo-Pacific, as well as joint exercises to protect freedom of navigation (European Commission, n.d.). Thus, the EU plays a normative role in the traditional security domain rather than that of a hard power which relies on military capabilities as do other major powers in the region.

It is important to note that, despite increasing military presence through its members such as Germany and France, ASEAN members do not yet consider the EU a major power in the traditional security domain. EU is not considered as a pragmatic military power in the political-security sphere as it does not have a standing military and its lack of geographical proximity with ASEAN (Grare, 2019). In the regional economy, the EU cannot compete with the U.S. and China’s strong economic influence in the region. By this logic, perceiving the EU’s security competence through the lens of pragmatism diminishes the EU’s reputation as a prominent military power in ASEAN and the broader Indo-Pacific region.

The EU as A Normative Power in the Indo-Pacific

The term ‘normative power’ refers to the ability to establish sets of rules and standards for the others to be subjected to. In other words “to shape the concept of what is perceived as normal,” (Manners, 2002). Manners (2002) asserts that normative power is the “power over opinion” with which the EU identifies and sets an example over values which include peace, liberty, democracy, rule of law, human rights, good governance, solidarity, and many more. Other researchers have expressed disagreement over this concept, especially because of inconsistency and use of material elements (Hyde-Price, 2006). However, these limitations do not stop the fact that EU is seeking to establish norms and values by setting examples, including in the Indo-Pacific.

The EU is also a major player in the human security sphere through its promotion of human rights, rule of law, & democracy norms in dealing with non-traditional security issues. The EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership laid a stronger foundation for anti-terrorism cooperation, fighting transnational crimes, cybersecurity, maritime security, as well as preserving peace & security in the region, especially in the Myanmar conflict (Yang, 2021). Umezawa (2014) pointed out how EU and ASEAN’s transnational security cooperation, including counterterrorism, always includes clauses highlighting respect for human rights and rule of law. The EU also promotes sustainable development norms, such as putting climate change and green growth on the Indo-Pacific agenda through the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership 2021 (EU, n.d.).

On the other hand, ASEAN is not just a pragmatic power, nor it is a passive receptor of the EU’s norms. As Archarya (2004) emphasized, norms are localized according to cognitive priors. The use of dialogues and informal channels to shape norms are proofs of this argument. ASEAN also seeks to shape the regional order in the Indo-Pacific through its mechanism and security infrastructure, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Another example is the ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting (AEMM) which resulted in the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership which contains shared values of multilateral and rules-based order. Unfortunately, as Allison-Reumann (2021) highlighted due to EU’s pragmatic approach, the partnership lacks normative dimensions such as democracy and human rights despite ASEAN championing the two values in its charter. Thus, it is a misrepresentation to say that ASEAN is detached from these values, this simply underlines that these norms are significantly different to those of the EU.

Abandoning the normative aspect of the cooperation is dangerous since ASEAN’s lack of institutionalisation and informality might hamper its objectives in the Indo-Pacific. This is evident in the case of the Myanmar Coup in which ASEAN capabilities were highly challenged and questioned (Connelly, 2021). The ASEAN Way championed informality, consultation, non-interference, is often lacking institutionalisation. Besides that, this is being challenged by external factors which is the increasing rivalry between the US and China, threatening ASEAN centrality in the region. These factors question the legitimacy of ASEAN’s leadership in the region.

ASEAN-EU Shared-Interest and Convergence in the Political-Security Area

Despite being situated at the centre of Indo-Pacific, the proliferation of exclusive West-led regional groupings such as the Quad, AUKUS, and minilateralism has been pushing ASEAN centrality to the corner (Le Thu, 2020). The EU sees this rising trend of minilateralism as a threat to multilateralism and openness, meaning they have decided to take a different stance than their allies. Similarly, both ASEAN and EU share the same values regarding this. ASEAN’s neutrality and EU’s ambivalence & soft approach to China in the Indo-Pacific serve as a strength to the region (ISEAS, 2021). The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) & the EU Strategy on Indo-Pacific converge on how both present alternatives to the Quad members' hard power focus and exclusionary approach to China (Grare & Reuter, 2021). Both aim to strengthen multilateralism and inclusivity as underpinnings of the Indo-Pacific. China’s breach of international law and US-China rivalry is threatening the rules-based order in the region, but this is an issue on which both ASEAN and EU stand together.

A normative-based approach would be beneficial despite the two entities having differing, however, not opposing norms regarding cooperation. ASEAN focuses on informal and lengthy consultations (Katsumata, 2003) while the EU champions formal and institutionalised channels (Yeo, 2010). Regardless, both organisations aim to navigate the negative externalities of the U.S.–China rivalry in the region by engaging actors in a multilateral and inclusive setting. Focusing on the military definition of ‘hard power balancing’ is risky, in that it may lead the Indo-Pacific towards conflict escalation. Therefore, the mediation of great power estrangement is where ASEAN and EU can cohesively make a difference.

ASEAN could learn from the EU's cohesive and institutionalised regionalism and the EU needs to learn to be more flexible, less bureaucratic, and less doctrinal but without abandoning its normative aspect of relations. It does not go as far as saying that ASEAN regionalism is a product of weak states' cooperation, but ASEAN's economic and security infrastructure needs to play a bigger role (Jones & Jenne, 2015). Hanada (2019) implies that ASEAN might want to reform its existing ASEAN-led institutions to effectively address urgent regional issues, such as the South China Sea issues. ASEAN needs to consider and realise its role in norm-entrepreneurship or at least in narrative-shaping in its security-led infrastructure, while the EU could contribute by strengthening the regional capacity of those mechanisms.

In the run up to EU-ASEAN’s 45th anniversary of relations, ASEAN and EU should leverage their cooperation in shaping the narrative in the Indo-Pacific. The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and ASEAN-led infrastructure such as the ASEAN regional forum should play a more relevant role as it is an inclusive forum for all powers in the Indo-Pacific. Yeo also emphasizes the potential of ASEAN-EU cooperation to create a code of conduct or framework on multilateralism or connectivity (CEPS, 2021). Further research could be done in regards to the role of ASEM and the need to develop a code of conduct, nonetheless, EU-ASEAN need to restore their trust in each other, focus on shared values, and contribute to building regional capacity. In this manner, the two entities could play a stronger role in navigating security tensions in the Indo-Pacific.



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