By Heather Conley & Ernest Bower
There is an interesting trend going on in Washington, DC. European officials and business leaders are seeking out U.S. experts to talk not about transatlantic issues but about Asia. Our CSIS Asia team’s calendars, normally booked with experts and senior officials from across the Indo-Pacific, are now filled with European diplomats, visiting officials and executives who want to talk about U.S. policy toward Asia.
What is going on here? Several factors are driving a critical need for the United States and Europe to consult one another on the Indo-Pacific in a more comprehensive way and create a new type of conversation around this dynamic region.
First, the Obama administration has not yet connected the dots, at least not in a comprehensive way, linking its relationship with Europe to finding common ground and alignment on its Asia strategy. Few, if any, U.S. senior officials think about advising European allies and partners on a major change in policy direction in Asia. For example, when President Obama formally announced new defense policy guidelines in January 2012, European capitals were notified only shortly before the official announcement. This fueled unnecessary questions and concerns about whether the pivot to Asia implicitly meant a significantly lighter (or disappearing) U.S. security footprint in Europe. Coming on the heels of Secretary Clinton’s November 2011 Foreign Policy magazine article entitled “America’s Pacific Century,” Europe was slowly awakening to the U.S. policy of rebalancing to Asia.
Europe mostly shrugged at these announcements however, having already pivoted economically to Asia as well as to other emerging economies. But what Europe’s economic pivot lacks, with the exception of the British and less so with the French, is an Asian security policy, which is an essential component of U.S. policy toward the region.
The second factor is that Europe is presently in a difficult adjustment period following the departure of former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. Assistant Secretary Campbell made it one of his priorities to engage more strategically with Europe about U.S. Asian policy. He held regular meetings with European ambassadors in Washington to brief them on U.S. policy and to encourage European policy engagement in the region. He was a frequent visitor to Brussels where he pushed for the formulation of EU policy towards ASEAN and effectively used the personal relationship between then Secretary Hillary Clinton and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton to encourage the EU to become more engaged in Asia. And it worked. In April 2012, Lady Ashton led the largest delegation of EU officials to an EU-ASEAN ministerial dialogue promising deeper institutional ties. Unfortunately, with Campbell’s departure from government service, this vital transatlantic consultation seems to have also departed.
Third, European companies, principally German, are becoming more vocal about issues of common concern in the region — cyber espionage and IPR protections in China, concerns about potential conflict in the South China Sea, the future outlook for the Asia-Pacific economy – but can’t necessarily find the right setting to discuss these issues in Europe. Europe has not developed mature and high-level policy focused private sector institutions to engage countries from across the Indo-Pacific to complement the work done by the EU and their own countries on a bilateral basis. Lacking effective leverage and the appropriate fora, many come to Washington to gain a better understanding of America’s approach to these issues as well as to gain a better sense of the larger geopolitical forces at play.
In business terms, we would consider these factors a strong demand signal, meaning there is and will be an increasing demand for close and persistent transatlantic consultation and cooperation regarding this dynamic and evolving region. Yes, such a transatlantic conversation undoubtedly will discuss China’s economic and security policies, but it must also focus on the important opportunities throughout the region and the attending tensions and dynamics.
Washington should think about Europe in the context of its Asia strategies. If the goal in Asia is to convince a rising China of the compelling case that promoting its own national security and economic interests lie in playing a major role in developing global and regional frameworks to update and then abide be international rules, then including Europe in that discussion makes good sense.
The other paradigm shift is connecting economic engagement directly with a more comprehensive definition of security, not only in Asia but globally. Thus, even though European companies will compete directly with American and Asian firms, all parties have a common interest in establishing world class rules and stability.
Washington could learn more about the pitfalls and benefits of the EU’s many free trade agreements with its Asian partners, for example, a concluded free trade agreement with South Korea; ongoing negotiations for free trade agreements with Japan and ASEAN countries; and continuing negotiations for an agreement with China on investment protection. The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its three baskets: security and confidence building; cooperation in the field of economics, science, technology and environment; and cooperation on the human dimension could offer lesson learned for future Asian regional cooperation. And Europe could develop a deeper understanding of regional security dynamics, particularly those that impact freedom of navigation for export-fed economies, such as Germany. As Washington develops and matures its evolving Asia strategy, it makes sense to enhance and even institutionalize opportunities to share ideas and find opportunities for cooperation with Europe.
For our part, we at CSIS not only hear the demand signal but wish to be responsive to it and work more closely with European and U.S. officials and experts to forge opportunity into reality.
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.