Are region-to-region relations between the EU and ASEAN possible?

Essay, 2013
13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Essay question;

Words: 4042

Submissiondate: 15/01/2013

The relationship between the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is perceived as having a unique importance (Camroux 2009: 4). The first formal meeting between ASEAN and the European Economic Community (EEC) took place in June 1972 (Lim 2012: 47) and was the first of its kind between the precursor to the EU and another regional entity. Nowadays, the relationship is widely considered as a model for interregional relations (Camroux 2009: 4). However, there are many obstacles impeding a further institutionalisation of the region-to-region relations. Negotiations about the enhancement of the cooperation often have stalled during the past decades and the progress of interregional convergence proceeds slowly.

The following essay will answer the question whether region-to-region relations between the EU and ASEAN are possible and analyse their degree of the institutionalisation. In order to draw a picture of the development towards interregional cooperation, the essay will summarise the historical emergence of the relationship and identify the obstacles within the current state of interactions. The author will present the argument that region-to-region relations are possible and already exist. However, he will point out that, because of ASEAN's lacking capacities, the interregional relations continue to be limited to certain fields and agreements in the economical and political domain remain mostly bi- and multilateral. The essay will explain the structures of the already existing interregional cooperation and stress how an enhanced relationship would be beneficial for both organisations. Finally, it will summarise its findings and provide an outlook for the years to come.

Historical emergence of the EU-ASEAN relationship

Although by the end of the 1970s a full-fledged interregional dialogue had emerged (Rüland 2001: 13), in terms of region-to-region cooperation, there had not been a visible strengthening of the relations during the years after (Camroux 2009: 200). The policies of the EU and ASEAN during the following decades were conditioned by the global context. Due to the economic crisis of the 1970s, the European policy towards Southeast Asia adopted a more protectionist attitude. Many of the export orientated ASEAN member states posed a risk to the European market and protectionism impeded a further interregional cooperation (Robles 2004: 165). Other major obstacles to an enhancement of the relations were the Indonesian annexation of East Timor in 1975 and the decision of ASEAN to incorporate Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia during the 1990s (Camroux 2009: 200). Especially Myanmar's noncompliance with basic human rights laws burdened the relations (Lim 2012: 49). Moreover, the experience of the Asian financial crisis at the end of the 1990s showed that behind the rhetoric of Asian solidarity was neither the intraregional willingness nor the capacity to deal with major difficulties (Camroux 2009: 200). The ASEAN countries decided to renationalise their partially regionalised economies, opted for national solutions and ignored even limited options for harmonisation of interests and power strategies through the framework of ASEAN (Seidelmann 2009: 45)

The defensive attitude towards ASEAN changed with the influence of the globalisation process and the rising opinion that regionalism could be an instrument to adapt and promote global cooperation (Robles 2004: 165). Since the 1990s the EU has adopted the view that regional integration of developing countries might be a stage of the globalisation process and started to promote closer intra- and interregional relations. In 1994, the EU started to implement its “New Asia Strategy“ which declared ASEAN to the cornerstone for its future dialogue with the Asia- Pacific region (Daquila 1999: 120). The Asian financial crisis on the other hand, revitalised the wish for more regionalisation within ASEAN itself (Robles 2004: 166/170).

Despite the common understanding of the benefits of interregional relations, there still exist significant differences between the two regions which impede a further expansion of region-to- region relations.

Obstacles within the current cooperation

Both organisations constitute mechanisms for integration in their regions, but differ in several key aspects like the degree of their institutionalisation (Brok 2006: 41). While the EU moves more and more towards being a supranational actor, ASEAN can be seen as a regional multilateral cooperation (Seidelmann 2008: 36). The inter-governmental/supranational dichotomy influences the interregional cooperation attempts (Camroux 2009: 8).

Emerging from the experiences of World War II, the EU has been evolving into a supranational institution since its beginning. In Southeast Asia on the other hand, the experiences of World War II had no relevant effects on regionalisation and institution building. There is an obsession with national sovereignty in Southeast Asia that goes back to the history of colonialism and the fact that most of the ASEAN countries gained their independence just a few decades ago. Therefore, the argument that the reduction of national sovereignty is necessary in order to reach future peace is not applicable to Southeast Asia (Camroux 2009: 189). While the “europeanisation” is monopolized by the EU, in Asia there are many different subregionalisation processes which are neither harmonized nor linked and sometimes even of duplicative or competitive nature (Seidelmann 2008: 46). The EU's international importance is much stronger, as its level of integration is more developed and the quality and quantity of its member states much bigger (Seidelmann 2008: 47). Summarised one could say that regionalism in Western Europe has triggered a process of régionalisation, while the success of regionalism in Southeast Asia has not been accompanied by the process of regionalisation (Robles 2004: 165). The EU, as the more integrated organisation, has significant financial resources and the ability to implement policies throughout an integrated region. ASEAN, as the weaker actor, has deployed considerable resources like time and energy to translate ideas into policies, but needs EU support in order to implement them (Robles 2004: 169).

Even though ASEAN appreciates the benefits of the interregional relations with the EU and is not averse to a further convergence of the two regions, there are still significant differences between ASEAN member states and the EU regarding issues such as the protection of intellectual property and investment, as well as the reform process of the international financial sector (Robles 2004: 170). Moreover, the membership in ASEAN is perceived as a useful complement to nation­building and regime consolidation as long as it does not break with the ASEAN principle of non­interference into domestic affairs of its member states. The membership in ASEAN should therefore enhance national sovereignties and not reduce them, a fact that remains an important obstacle in strengthening relations (Camroux 2009: 189).

In the 1990s, the EU introduced the promotion and protection of human rights into the ASEAN-EU relationship. While this concern is an essential element of regionalism in Europe, it is not a very important issue for ASEAN member states. Thus, there does not exist a consensus regarding that topic. The challenge for the EU is to enhance interregional relations in trade and investment while simultaneously promoting human rights. Due to social improvements within the ASEAN societies, economic success and modernisation, ASEAN gained a lot of self-confidence in recent years. In regard to foreign-, trade- and security policies, ASEAN now formulates its own positions and tries to emancipate from Western influence (Dreis-Lampen 1998: 248). Claims of the EU for democratisation, liberalisation and the respect of human rights in the context of trade relations are perceived as confounding factors which hinder the independent development of ASEAN member states (Dreis-Lampen 1998: 249).

The launching of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) threatened the importance of ASEAN. As China, Japan and South Korea are members of ASEM, there is a risk of marginalisation of the smaller and/ or less developed states of Southeast Asia (Robles 2004: 170). In addition, some EU officials have stated that the ASEAN-EU forums were redundant when dialogue could occur in a larger ASEM framework (Camroux 2009: 200). However, ASEM today combines 48 partners and became a geographically non-defined group. The initial region-to-region principle has shifted back to a multilateral approach (Jokela/Gaens 2012: 152). The problem of ASEM’s lacking resources, in terms of staff, finances and institutions, could be a chance to revitalise a more manageable and perspectively more productive EU-ASEAN cooperation (Camroux 2009: 32).

For enhanced region-to-region relations it is important to develop a common European policy towards all of Southeast Asia. The priority of the younger member states lies with the integration into the European single market, while the export to non-European countries is a concern for the future. Moreover, most of the younger member states are net investment recipients rather than investors (Camroux 2009: 201). To many national interests compete with each other and with the interest of the European Commission (EC), which makes the EU a difficult negotiating partner (Jürgensen2006: 180).

Soft power resources like economical and financial aid make the EU an essential partner in the region (Jürgensen 2006: 180). However, if the EU wants to exert its influence on the ASEAN countries it has to act more power-conscious. The restrictive focus on soft policy in areas like development aid, environment protection cooperation or cultural dialogue is not sufficient and not attractive enough for ASEAN countries to recognise the EU as a factor of power. Therefore, it is necessary for the EU to complement its current political approach with hard contributions like the establishment of a free trade area (FTA) or in terms of security and energy cooperation (Jürgensen 2006: 172).

There seems to be reluctance within ASEAN to negotiate and implement an FTA agreement with the EU. Unlike in the cases of the China-ASEAN and the Korea-ASEAN FTA, it is not ASEAN who is seeking to sign the agreement, but the EU. As ASEAN already possesses a trade surplus within its trade relation with the EU, it is not really clear which further benefits a FTA would generate. Moreover, Southeast Asian governments would be required to reduce their protection policies for the manufacturing industries and European investment in Southeast Asia (Camroux 2009: 198). Aside from the lacking political willingness of ASEAN member states, there are also some structural and systemic issues that hinder the creation of an FTA. To begin with, ASEAN is lacking a common market and has a low level of intra-ASEAN trade (only 25 per cent compared to two-thirds intra-EU trade). The ASEAN secretariat and the representative of the rotating presidency lack a mandate to negotiate in the name of all member states. Moreover, the member states of ASEAN are not bound by agreements and have the right to opt out. There are also significant disparities between the ASEAN member states which create different priorities with regard to trade, investment and development. Finally, it is questionable, if ASEAN possesses the capacity to allow the implementation of a FTA (Camroux 2009: 199).

Another question is, whether interregional cooperation may be hampered by the different social and political circumstances within the regions.


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Are region-to-region relations between the EU and ASEAN possible?
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Martin Hiebsch (Author), 2013, Are region-to-region relations between the EU and ASEAN possible?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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