The huge uncertainty surrounding the future of US foreign, security and trade policy opens new horizons for the EU in most parts of Asia, writes Fraser Cameron.
Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU-Asia Centre and a Senior Advisor to Cambre Associates, a Brussels-based, integrated public relations and public affairs consultancy.
Asked in Washington last Friday (10 February) whether the EU was ready to take on a greater leadership role, Federica Mogerhini gave a clear answer. ‘Yes, we are ready’ said the EU’s foreign policy chief.
Given the international criticism and uncertainty surrounding Donald Trump’s entry into the White House could this indeed be an opportunity for the EU to come of age on the global stage?
At first sight the idea may sound far-fetched what with Brexit, the refugee crisis and the rise of populism throughout Europe. But the EU remains the largest market in the world, the largest provider of development assistance and the strongest supporter of the multilateral system. The European political system has been shaken up but to date there are no populist parties governing any major member state. It is this boring reliability that other powers, especially in Asia, are beginning to recognise as a strength, especially given the unpredictability surrounding the future of US foreign policy.
In Asia, despite recent reassurances, they wonder if long-standing alliances will still hold and are perplexed as to why Washington is prepared to cede economic leadership to China by tearing up the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). In Beijing, they wonder if the bipartisan One China policy will really remain intact and whether Trump is planning a trade war with China.
In Europe the questions concern the implications of a potential US rapprochement with Russia – at what cost? Will Trump adhere to the Iran nuclear deal? Will he maintain America’s commitment to the Paris climate change agreement? And will he turn his back on free trade and multilateral institutions?
Given all this uncertainty it is not surprising that many countries are beating a path to Brussels to shore up their relations with the EU. Japan has signalled that after years of desultory talks it now wants to conclude an FTA with the EU as soon as possible. Officials on both sides are targeting late spring to clinch a deal.
Even in the midst of the present domestic turmoil Korea is sending senior envoys to Brussels with the message that Seoul wants to work more closely with Brussels. Its parliament has just ratified an agreement to allow for closer political and security cooperation with the EU. It is likely to join the EU’s Operation Atalanta in the Gulf of Aden in the coming weeks.
And perhaps most surprisingly China now looks to the EU as a guarantor of the rules-based multilateral system. Who would have forecast even a year ago that Beijing and Brussels would be pressing Washington not to renege on its climate change commitments? In addition, China has hinted that it wishes to speed up the bilateral investment treaty negotiations with the EU as a result of the protectionist voices coming out of Washington.
Several countries in SE Asia including Indonesia and the Philippines are now keen to accelerate FTA negotiations with the EU while India, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand are also ready to deepen ties with the EU.
All this activity shows that Asia still regards the EU as a serious player. But for this goodwill to be sustained the EU will have to continue to show up in the region and do a better job of speaking with one voice including on sensitive issues such as the South China Sea.
Mogherini understands the increasing importance of Asia for the EU and has scheduled a number of visits this year including India, China, Myanmar and possibly Australia and New Zealand.
She will be promoting inter alia the EU’s Global Strategy, which with its emphasis on a comprehensive approach to security, provides a stark contrast to the nationalist-isolationist, transactional approach of the Trump foreign policy team.
The huge uncertainty surrounding the future of US foreign, security and trade policy thus opens new horizons for the EU. The EU now has to agree and promote its own interests in a more coherent manner. It must reaffirm its commitment to strengthening the multilateral system, supporting a normative agenda (and not just let Angela Merkel speak out for basic values) and demonstrate its understanding of Asian concerns and interests.
The reward could be a new mutually beneficial EU-Asia relationship that provides two solid pillars in a world facing so much uncertainty in America.