European Pivots to Southeast Asia: Leaving the EU-ASEAN Corridors?

By Felix Sharief

Source: French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Paris, France, June 2012. Fabius is the first French government official to deliver a policy speech at the ASEAN headquarters.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Paris during June 2012. Fabius is the first French government official to deliver a policy speech at the ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta. Source: francediplomatie’s flickr photostream used under a creative commons license.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius visited Jakarta from July 31 to August 2 in an effort to build a bilateral strategic partnership with Indonesia. Fabius also visited the Secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where he met with Secretary-General Le Luong Minh and gave a public address on France’s policy toward Asia. Fabius’s trip is indicative of a broader trend among some European countries, particularly France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, working to re-engage the Asia-Pacific to achieve different ends.

Fabius, the first senior French government official to visit the ASEAN headquarters, delivered a speech explaining France’s pivot toward the Asia-Pacific. In the address, he noted that France was the first European country to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 2007. Stressing the diplomatic and economic components of the French pivot, he said the French government wishes to develop ties with the whole Asia-Pacific, enhance socio-cultural ties between France and Southeast Asian countries, and boost French exports to the region.

Fabius expressed France’s desire to participate in the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), and Paris’ drive to maintain a pioneering role in cooperating with ASEAN for regional peace and security. Currently, the ADMM+ includes all of ASEAN’s dialogue partners, except Canada and the European Union (EU). Equally important was Fabius’ proposal for an ASEAN-EU pact designed to help strengthen ASEAN-EU collective actions in areas of common concerns.

Paris is not alone. London has also recently shifted its attention to the Asia-Pacific in an effort to capitalize on the remarkable economic growth in the region. For instance, since the United Kingdom’s accession to TAC in 2012, more British officials have visited Southeast Asia than at any time in the past 20 years. By acceding to the TAC, the United Kingdom signaled its commitment to the region and readiness for deeper engagement with ASEAN, not least on security issues.

Meanwhile, Germany has its own approach in its pivot to Southeast Asia centered on economics and capacity building. To show its support for ASEAN’s institutions and regional integration, the German government has contributed over $13 million through its international development agency, Die Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, for strengthening the ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta. Since 2005, Germany has also allocated over $80 million to support regional economic integration and environmental awareness programs.

Unlike the French and British, who would like to raise their political clout in the region and participate in regional security fora such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and ADMM+, the Germans have shown little interest in political-security engagement, giving more emphasis to trade and economic ties with ASEAN.

ASEAN’s central role in the region provides political and security frameworks for external parties to participate in the regional architecture, through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ADMM+, and EAS. Until now, the EU has only participated in the ARF process, and is not part of the ADMM+ and EAS. Setting aside the fact that the EU does not meet requirements to join the ADMM+ due to its lack of security ties with ASEAN, there is a view among ASEAN member states that questions the EU’s capacity in this area.

As for EAS, although the decision was not officially announced, former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan in September 2012 called for a moratorium on new membership in the EAS, while the forum takes stock of its evolving role and incorporates its newest members, Russia and the United States.

Against this backdrop, France’s announcement of its desire to join the ADMM+ could be seen as an alternative solution for boosting its future participation in the regional security architecture, rather than waiting with uncertainty until the EU will be accepted into these regional mechanisms. Other like-minded European countries may follow suit in order to have a seat at the table with regards to important regional issues, and establish engagement mechanisms with ASEAN where the EU cannot.

The EU’s status as a dialogue partner of ASEAN nonetheless subjects EU member states to barriers in their own pursuits of strategic interests through regional frameworks. However, France’s latest gesture toward ASEAN shows European countries now have two options: they can wait until the EU fully participates in all ASEAN-led regional political-security frameworks, or they could take their own steps if they want to have a greater role in the regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific.

Mr. Felix Sharief works as ASEAN Research Analyst at the British Embassy Jakarta. Previously he worked at ASEAN Secretariat and the House of Representatives of the Republic of Indonesia. Opinions expressed are solely his own and do not express the views or opinions of his employer.       

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