By Yeo Lay Hwee (Director, EU Centre)
The European Union (EU) has been stepping up engagement with Asia, and 2012 was in particular a busy year for the EU’s diplomacy in Asia. The EU is also seen to be moving away from its intense focus on China and spreading its attention to other regions in Asia, and in particular Southeast Asia. Catherine Ashton has since 2012 made three trips to Southeast Asia and she is also expected to attend this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
ASEAN as the EU’s longstanding dialogue partner deserves the attention, and both should work ever more closely together to forge a comprehensive partnership for mutual benefit. Besides the various bilateral FTAs that the EU hopes to conclude and launch with ASEAN member states, the EU should also step up engagement with ASEAN through different functional platforms and other regional forums in which it has already a presence. The EU is a member of the ARF and ASEM, two important forums in which it can be more proactive to make a difference.
The EU as the world’s leading global trader and with its significant economic presence in Asia, have a strong stake in ensuring the security of merchant shipping in Asia. It should therefore consider acceding to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAPP). All ASEAN members are contracting parties to ReCAPP, and this would be another platform for the EU to engage ASEAN.
While the EU is making efforts to have its presence felt in Asia, ASEAN in turn should also make its presence felt in Brussels, where many of the EU institutions are located. It is therefore gratifying to note that there are more and more events in Brussels, some official (http://www.europarl.europa.eu/committees/en/afet/home.html) and others organised by think tanks and research institutions that are aimed at increasing awareness and understanding of the importance and the potential of EU-ASEAN partnership.
Ambassadors of ASEAN member states to the EU in Brussels should also make concerted efforts to have joint events and engage in inter-regional (ASEAN-EU) dialogue. The ASEAN Committee of Permanent Representatives and the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights have made several visits to the EU for exchange. These are useful and more visits from ASEAN officials and institutions should be considered. With the increasing role and power of the European Parliament (EP) in the EU’s external relations, the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) should also step up efforts to engage the EP.
Both the EU and ASEAN would benefit from having relations established at different levels, using different platforms, and also going beyond official level by encouraging more people-to-people links. A growing dense network of links and partnerships is the way forward for the EU and ASEAN to cement their ties and make the relationship blossoms.