Research & Publications


Interview with Mr Alain Ruche, Deputy Head of Unit, Asia Directorate, External Relations DG, European Commission

Mr Alain Ruche is the Deputy Head of Unit (Asia, Horizontal Matters) of the Directorate-General for External relations in the European Commission. Mr Ruche recently opened the EU Centre’s series of public lectures for the year with a talk on “Does Europe need a new Asia Strategy” on 12 January 2010, co-hosted by the Asia-Europe Foundation. The Centre caught up with Mr Ruche to seek his responses to questions related to the lecture. Here we reproduce his replies to an interview conducted via email. Mr Ruche is speaking in his personal capacity.

1- You have said the EU needs a new strategy towards Asia- how critically and when- did the Lisbon add a new impetus?

The EU policy document- the Commission’s Communication issued in 2001- is still the general framework for the relations between the EU and Asia. The world has drastically changed since then, and both regions as well. In Asia, let’s just mention the (re)emergence of China and India. Even if the objective of forging alliances is mentioned in the 2001 document, these two Asian giants are not even singled out. On the EU side there have also been major developments, not least the new wave of enlargement and the euro. More recently, and after several difficulties you know, the Lisbon Treaty brought in institutional reform to allow for an EU with 27 members to function properly, and also to give more coherence, visibility, representation to the EU on the external stage. Lisbon, apart from giving legal personality to the Union, has become more democratic with a stronger voice given to the European parliament and national parliaments of member states.

As you know the Lisbon Treaty entered into force on December 1st 2009. This does not mean that this new legal binding agreement will be implemented overnight. A concrete and realistic approach has been adopted in close coordination with member states, the Council and in particular the current Spanish presidency. On her side Baroness Catherine Ashton, the new EU High Representative in charge of External Affairs, needs some time to set up the new External Action Service that will help her in carrying out her tasks. This raises political, administrative, legal, financial and technical questions. The new Treaty leaves quite open the ground regarding several aspects. This flexibility will allow the Lisbon Treaty to remain a landmark in the European integration process for many years.

We should also avoid excessive expectations like the EU speaking with one voice on every issue. The EU is not a state and should not be judged against the standards of a state. I doubt that the EU will ever speak with one voice across the board. The fact that twenty seven member states often reach an agreed position and decide to act together is by itself very noticeable.

2- What would you say are the EU’s strategic priorities: China, East Asia, South Asia, then Southeast Asia, in spite of its market size being 500 million- same as EU? What do you foresee for the next review period, post 2012 perhaps?

I would not say that Asia as such is among the first external priorities for the EU for the moment: rather are enlargement and the Eastern countries (Russia, Ukraine), our ‘strategic partners’ including China and Japan (and in some way ASEAN), working with the US, a proper management of public goods like climate change, energy, a comprehensive approach of security and of course the economic crisis. At the same time we consider critical to start outlining a new EU strategy towards Asia. Such a strategy would not mean a monolithic approach to the region, rather an interconnected and differentiated approach of sub-regional strategies. Take two examples: this would facilitate the continuation of our specific concern towards least developed countries (like Laos, Cambodia and Nepal), and also follow up the Chinese policy in SE Asia, and act accordingly.

For many years the EU has promoted regional integration in Asia mainly through support to institutional and economic policies (ASEAN and SAARC). Since the beginning of this century the EU has engaged at bilateral level with strategic partners through the issuing of policy documents for India, China, South East Asia, and also political guidelines for North East Asia. More recently given the deadlock in multilateral negotiations on trade the EU has embarked on negotiations of Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) with several SE Asian countries, China and Mongolia. The fact is that the EU has given utmost priority to China, and much less to India and Japan. There is a cost to this excessive attention toward China, in particular for South East Asia. At the same time the rigid EU position with respect to Myanmar, with nearly no impact on the political regime, has also affected the EU relations with ASEAN. One could say that the relations between Asian countries have become as much important as the relations between Asian countries and the EU itself. The growing role of China in SE Asia is a good illustration of this.

3- You mentioned that the EU adopts a differentiated strategy towards Asia; it is a “flexible” and “smart soft power”. Is this differentiated approach applicable to Myanmar?

Indeed I mentioned the flexibility and the soft power as significant attributes of the EU and part of the EU’s added value in the region. We can see that Asia is attracted by the EU soft power but whether the Asians act accordingly is more ambiguous. Regarding smart power I mentioned that the real challenge for the EU is to define how much hard power its needs to make its soft power effective, so that the final ‘cocktail’ of smart power has an impact. This approach does not apply to the EU policy towards Myanmar. Based on good intentions, the EU has maintained a long standing- and unchanged- position of autonomous sanctions against the junta of which the final result has been limited and actually tended to marginalize the EU influence. My guess is that new ideas will come up in the next year or two regarding how to deal with this country. Actually this is more a problem of EU member states than of the EU itself.

4- On the much predicted future multipolarity of the world order, in your view, what are the ideal and worst-case scenarios?

Multipolarity is rather a fact than a ‘predicted future’. The time of (US) unipolarity is well over. Regional and world partners have (re) emerged in the last few years. Look at China, India but also South Africa and Brazil. There is no room- no real intention- for a G2 (China and the US). This new configuration in international relations has two major characteristics: it happens in a world where the West does not appear anymore as the ‘centre’ and the only reference: the other partners also have their respective worldviews. Also this happens in an interdependent world; this is why the term ‘interpolarity’ appears useful (Giovanni Grevi). Another major change is that we live in a world often regulated by the laws of a “complex system” (D. Snowden): non linearity, resilience, risk taking attitude, emergence of unexpected solutions (see the black swans) and in particular unpredictability. So the concept of scenarios is not useful anymore like in the past: it cannot be the basis for planning a future which never materializes. Visioning a future rather helps in orienting today’s action. The context is the departure point of everything. So there are no ‘ideal’ or ‘worst’ scenarios. Of course projections can be made to visualize things: if Chinese buy cars like Americans, then the superficies of roads will become greater in China that the superficies planted in rice (Lester Brown).

5- What do you personally find interesting about Asia or Singapore?

The word ‘interesting’ can have different meanings. I feel most attracted by Asian diversity and creativity, from the cultural, social, political, human and religious point of view. I happen to have lived and worked on several continents, and Asia is the one when I do feel most ‘at home’ if I may say so. Traditional virtues of Asia are attractive to me while I am impressed how some countries are involved in the knowledge society, like South Korea. Asia’s mind is challenging the Western-centered position too, which is often flagged in history. The importance given by Asians to context and networking are growingly key assets in our changing and challenging worlds.

Now I only have superficial opinions about? Singapore and can hardly go beyond well-known clichés. I am impressed by the importance of shopping in this country: it looks like a national sport! The legendary efficiency of the people is impressive and also helpful to have a tour in what appears to be a well-thought urbanization. I am curious to see what Singapore will do ‘in altitude’ in the years to come.

A. Ruche, February 2010​