The 23rd ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting (AEMM) was marked by a historic event. On 1 December 2020 – inaugurating a new chapter in the forty-four years of EU-ASEAN dialogue – the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership came into being. The proposal for a partnership had already been made back in 2012 by the ASEAN group, but it was initially put on hold due to a hesitant European foreign policy at that time, as well as due to disputes over palm oil – particularly with Malaysia and Indonesia (Demonte, 2021).
ASEAN’s centrality, both in an economic and geopolitical sense, has increased significantly during the last decades. With its population of 654 million living across the states of the Asian Association, this part of the world is an attractive market for global powers. The GDP of the ASEAN states has rapidly grown from $ 600 billion to $ 3,000 billion in only 20 years, thus promising an increase in ASEAN purchasing power, and thereby allowing for a dramatic increase of trade flows. The positive trend is confirmed by the goods bilaterally exchanged each year between the EU and ASEAN, which are worth more than € 200 billion. Consequently, Southeast Asia is increasingly considered as an essential partner in commerce not only for Europe, but also for China and the US (Pozzi, 2021).
The region is becoming more relevant geopolitically too. The recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), involving ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea, constitutes the largest trade agreement in the world. By signing this mega trade agreement, and with the subsequent reinforcement of global multilateralism and rule-based order and trade, the negotiating position of ASEAN toward global powers was enhanced (Pozzi, 2021).
Moreover, an additional spotlight on the ASEAN bloc was vested at the time of the German Presidency of the Council last year, during which the EU focused on the Asia-Pacific region and improving their relations with ASEAN. The official endorsement by the German government of the “Indo-Pacific” concept in September 2020 added value to the EU’s interest in the region. This is not surprising, considering the tensions in the South China Sea that recall the importance of global security in this region, as nearly 40 percent of the EU’s foreign trade passes through these regional waters (Demonte, 2021). In addition, a more severe competition for attention is possible after the election of President Joe Biden, who is expected to initiate reinforcement of the US-ASEAN relations, in obvious opposition to the expansion of China in the region. If that would be the case, the EU has all the more reason to pursue the strengthening of cooperation with the ASEAN as an economic and strategic partner (Pozzi, 2021).
As a region-to-region cooperation, the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership is thus expected to bring a positive impact worldwide in four main directions in particular – economic and security cooperation, as well as sustainable connectivity and sustainable development. Economic cooperation focuses on a circular economy, fiscal and financial stability, sustainable financing, free and fair trade based on cross-border rules and regulations like labour rights, as well as creating jobs in an interconnected world. Security cooperation is centered around preserving peace and stability, fighting against transnational crime, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, as well as maritime security. Sustainable connectivity goals are related to diversifying and simplifying transport linkages, promoting renewable energy and security of supply, and cooperation in the fields of education, research, innovation, culture, and tourism. Sustainable development is another crucial area of cooperation, where human rights, climate change and biodiversity, clean energy transition, smart cities, healthy oceans, as well as general environmental protection are of central concern. Citizens are thus expected to benefit from enhanced prosperity, promoted security, strengthened resilience, as well as improved connectivity (EEAS Press Team, 2020).
Furthermore, officials from both regions met already last year, on 20 March 2020 via teleconferencing, to exchange information about the COVID-19 pandemic, with particular attention paid to efforts towards disease control and treatment. Vaccine multilateralism was mutually agreed upon, while the World Health Organization was envisaged as a partner in ensuring fair, equitable and affordable access to safe and effective vaccines (Shada and Hwee, 2020).
The betting now is on how quickly negotiations on EU-ASEAN bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) will reopen, with one attempt already having failed. The EU’s strategic interest in strengthening the ASEAN partnership was already clearly stated years ago, but due to discord on human rights, including the Malayisian and Indonesian concerns over the palm oil exports to the EU, the process was not successful. Very recently, a joint working group was set up by both sides in an attempt to solve the palm oil issue within the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The first meeting was held in January 2021, while the second is to take place later in April (Shada and Hwee, 2020).
Singapore and Vietnam have meanwhile signed bilateral trade pacts with the EU, and some other ASEAN states are also currently negotiating. Such pacts are usually seen as “building blocks” for a future region-to-region FTA. Business leaders from both regions are greatly interested in opening a round of negotiations; the common goal of upgrading EU-ASEAN trade ties is therefore not new. For EU businesses, for example, a potential FTA would not only boost region-to-region trade and investment flows, but it would also accelerate the ASEAN’s economic integration and ensure better market access (Shada and Hwee, 2020).
All in all, differences over democracy and human rights as well as trade disputes are to be expected. Therefore, policymakers will need to balance in finding common ground. Even though this process will likely prove to be challenging, both ASEAN and the EU have sent a strong message that despite historical, geographical, political and economic differences, countries can cooperate (Shada and Hwee, 2020).
Demonte, Viviana (2021, January 5). “From Dialogue to Strategic Partnership – A promising future for EU-ASEAN relations.” European Institute for Asian Studies. https://www.eias.org/news/from-dialogue-to-strategic-partnership-a-promising-future-for-eu-asean-relations/
EEAS Press Team (2020, December 1). “EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Factsheet.” European Union External Actions Service. https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fact-sheet-eu-asean-strategic-partnership.pdf
Lenzu, Maria Daniela (2020, December 1). “Co-chairs’ press release of the 23rd ASEAN-EU ministerial meeting.” Council of the EU. https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/12/01/co-chairs-press-release-of-the-23rd-asean-eu-ministerial-meeting/
Pozzi, Riccardo (2021, March 18). “ASEAN-EU strategic partnership: a new path of upgraded relations.” EURACTIV. https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/opinion/asean-eu-strategic-partnership-a-new-path-of-upgraded-relations/
Shada, Islam & Hwee, Yeo Lay (2020, December 7). “It has taken time, but the new EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership matters.” European Policy Centre. https://www.epc.eu/en/Publications/It-has-taken-time-but-the-new-EU-ASEAN-Strategic-Partnership-matters~3a2e88