EU strategy towards Asia is not coherent


Irish and European introspection in dealing with austerity and the euro crisis tends to prevent a proper appreciation of developments elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia, that could enable or jeopardise economic recovery. Europe’s relations with Asia are patchy, too China-centric and ill-focused between national states and the European Union.

This week Japanese leaders criticised Chinese navy vessels for targeting two Japanese warships with a weapon-ready radar, raising fears the incidents could lead to armed conflict. Higher levels of nationalist rhetoric in both states recently accompany changes in political leadership.

China’s military power is maturing in line with its economic strength, seen vividly in more assertive claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea. Controlled by Japan since 1895 and claimed by China on the basis of a longer historical association, the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands lie amid rich fishing waters in an area with large reserves of undersea oil and gas.

Some commentators recall the shadow of 1914 in Europe when prolonged arms buildups were tipped into war by an assassination in Sarajevo. Others say it is an inappropriate comparison, since east Asia’s international relations are not yet so polarised.

Nevertheless, renewing alliances with an equally more assertive United States presence in Asia to balance China could create an architecture of conflictual security that would challenge the region’s much more integrated economic relations.

A lot depends on whether the US can respond to valid security fears there without simultaneously seeking to contain China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful emergence”. The argument pits realist security analysts who doubt it can against those who believe the US should use the positive economic links and interdependence that have emerged over the past decade to foster regional stability.

Europe tends to be crowded out of such discussions because it has no seventh fleet to deploy in the region and because its increasing trade and investment there are not accompanied by at all adequate diplomatic involvement or political and popular knowledge and comprehension of Asian affairs.

This is shortsighted since 60 per cent of EU trade goes through the South China Sea and any military disruption of Asia’s economic dynamism would immediately affect Europe’s wellbeing too.

There is a clear lack of coherence and consistency in EU strategy towards Asia. Making this case in a lecture in Trinity College this week (part of an excellent “Euro-visions” series running through the Irish EU presidency) the Irish scholar of Europe-Asia relations Philomena Murray from the University of Melbourne said it suffered from a triple hierarchy of policy shortcomings.

Trade is given too much priority over other issues; China is overemphasised over other Asian actors; and national interests led by Germany, the UK and France predominate over common EU ones.

Different parts of the EU bureaucracy compete for influence, and overall the EU underperforms, notably by failing to show sufficient respect for Asian custom by participating consistently in its summitry, where most of the regional identity is actually being formed in a spirit of reciprocal recognition, she argues.

Astonishingly, there is no EU ambassador to Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; and the EU has no seat at the East Asia Summit, which brings together Asean, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, Russia and the US.

In consequence, the EU’s soft power as a potential mediator of regional conflict is lost sight of, as is its expressed normative commitment to peace and justice. There is still a tendency to assume the EU is a model rather than a partner for Asian regionalism.

Europeans and Asians need more socialisation to bring greater trust and confidence between their cultures and peoples. They suffer from mutual knowledge and comprehension deficits, reinforced by uneven and selective media coverage of each other, as recent research shows vividly.

This assumes, of course, that both Europe and Asia can validly be described as having some kind of cultural or political identity capable of bringing their peoples together aside from their geographical one, questions raised by members of the audience at this lecture.

But economic pressures tend to reinforce regional co-operation in a globalised setting. Asian interests in the euro as an alternative reserve currency to the dollar, in a stable euro zone as a trading and investment partner and in Europe as a source of different values to US hegemonic ones are strong reasons from their side to strengthen the relationship. But that takes hard work and a mutual openness to difference.

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