The ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership's coherence challenge

16 February 2021

By Laura Allison-Reumann and Philomena Murray, University of Melbourne

This article first appeared on the East Asia Forum

Looking at the Co-Chairs’ statement, the ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership supports ASEAN centrality, an ASEAN-led regional architecture and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Together with the absence of references to human rights and democracy, the strategic partnership looks like an endorsement of ASEAN norms and principles, rather than EU goals and values.

The question remains as to whether the European Union — in its anxiety to defend multilateralism at all costs — has conceded too much or overlooked its core values in its pursuit of principled pragmatism to achieve a generic agreement.

There is also the question of whether EU support for ASEAN’s vision will deliver the intended outcome of enhancing EU security and its defence profile in the Asia Pacific. Will the strategic partnership grant the European Union membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus? It remains unclear.

Challenges abound for this inter-regional strategic partnership. First, the European Union and its member states must ensure coherence in their individual relations with ASEAN. Some member states already have Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies, with specific security and trade priorities and diplomatic approaches.

Second, the European Union needs to ensure coherence between its relations with ASEAN and individual ASEAN member states. The European Union has adopted positions towards individual ASEAN states on specific matters that contrast with its dealings with ASEAN, including the suspension of Cambodia’s EU trade privileges due to human rights concerns, conflicts with Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

The recent coup in Myanmar may also affect future relations. European leaders were quick to condemn the coup, yet have taken no action against Myanmar so far. ASEAN released a Chairman’s statement encouraging the ‘pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and a return to normalcy’. How ASEAN and the European Union move forward with the situation in Myanmar will have important implications for the strategic partnership. Discord can indeed derail cooperation; in 2009, FTA negotiations between the European Union and ASEAN stalled, partially due to the problem of how to deal with Myanmar and its troubling human rights record.

Questions remain as to whether the new strategic partnership will somehow reconcile bilateral engagement and multilateral cooperation, in a time of Chinese assertiveness and a new US pivot to Asia. Until recently, the European Union and ASEAN could rally together against the US disdain for multilateralism under former president Donald Trump and China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas.

The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell declared that the ‘EU-ASEAN partnership is no longer a luxury but a necessity’. Whether it was ever a luxury is debateable, but the European Union now seems to fully comprehend the strategic importance of its relationship with ASEAN. Finding common ground and managing their differences will be key to bringing meaning and coherence to their newly minted strategic partnership.

Laura Allison-Reumann is Associate Fellow at the EU Centre in Singapore and Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Philomena Murray is Jean Monnet Chair (ad personam) and Honorary Professorial Fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. She is also a Research Associate at the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies, Bruges, and Visiting Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin.