Defining New Grounds for Cooperation Between the EU and ASEAN

Security interactions between the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) have grown substantially since the turn of the century. The EU was first involved in Aceh, supported the peace processes in Mindanao and Myanmar, and is currently working with ASEAN member states on a number of security issues, including cyber&ndah;security, counter–terrorism and non–proliferation. The two entities have regular high level maritime security dialogues and the EU is a participant of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), where it co–chairs, with Vietnam and Australia, the Inter–Sessional Meeting on Maritime Security. It should soon become an observer of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting–Plus (ADMM–Plus) Experts Working Group activities. Despite this evolution, the EU is still perceived as unable to answer Southeast Asia’s strategic challenges and therefore is not seen as a strategic actor, despite its real and growing convergence of interests and objectives with ASEAN. The question today is therefore no longer that of an alignment of the EU with ASEAN security forums but rather how to change the perception of the EU by ASEAN member states. This will be possible only if the EU can effectively contribute to solving or at least mitigating the strategic issue ASEAN is confronted with. The debate ASEAN has, so far, mostly focused on the freedom of navigation and overflight, for which the EU has little to offer in terms of military capabilities. But the ongoing evolution of a strategic landscape, characterized more by resources appropriation than military rivalry, could open new grounds for EU–ASEAN security cooperation in a manner consistent with EU characteristics. In this perspective, environmental protection is a field worth exploring, in particular in the maritime domain, as it would open up promising avenues for cooperation, both politically acceptable and strategically significant.

Frederic Grare
Frédéric Grare is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on Indo-Pacific dynamics, the search for a security architecture, and South Asia Security issues.
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For a long time, the possibility of security cooperation between the EU and ASEAN was seen with skepticism by the latter. For most of Southeast Asia, the EU was only a distant power and insignificant as a security actor. Even the 2005 Aceh Monitoring Mission in Indonesia, the first European Security and Defense Policy mission in Asia, which was presented as a success for the EU, as evidence of its role as a security actor, did not register very strongly in many of the Southeast Asian countries. It was not even clear for many observers if the EU would be up to the challenge of devising a comprehensive strategy of engaging Southeast Asia on security issues.

The perception of a benevolent China, the preeminence of the US and a general shift towards the Pacific contributed, for a long time, to lessen Southeast Asian interest in the EU. This perception is gradually changing as China is increasingly seen as a threat (even though it is rarely openly admitted) and uncertainties about US commitment to Asia’s security keep growing in the region. In this changing strategic context ASEAN’s perception of the EU is evolving. The security relationship grows closer after each EU–ASEAN summit. In May 2018, Federica Mogherini could announce that “joint work on security has been the biggest area of growth in terms of [the EU] expanding cooperation with Asia” in general and ASEAN in particular. But despite growing recognition of their respective importance for each other, this perception of the EU as a weak security actor is still the dominant one.

On the ASEAN side, the question is whether the EU is willing and capable of undertaking joint strategic action in Southeast Asia in the foreseeable future. Unless it does so, the EU will still be seen as a “peripheral player” in the region. An examination of the content of the EU actual cooperation shows a focus on human security, when the nature of the concerns, as expressed by both the EU and ASEAN, is of a strategic nature. The ASEAN–EU working plan of Action 2018–2022 lists a number of very concrete cooperation efforts, from migration and border management issues to counter–terrorism, many of which are currently being implemented. If these issues are indeed important for both entities they remain at a sub–strategic level. Many are moreover addressed through dialogues. In effect, the EU still seems content to leave most of the hard strategy and security contribution to the United States.

Some EU member states — France, the United Kingdom &emdash; have elevated their security cooperation in Southeast Asia to a level of strategic significance. France in particular has, since 2012, engaged in a systematic effort to mobilize its EU partners in joint action in the South China Sea, welcoming observers, as well as military assets, from EU member states onboard its navy ship navigating contested areas. However, it would be delusional to expect rapid changes in the near future. As indicated earlier, limited capabilities, and a willingness to benefit from China’s economic dynamism, limit the appetite to confront China. Moreover, different strategic cultures and contrasted visions of the world and self–perception of each actor’s role in it will allow only for a slow evolution.

It seems, therefore, desirable to enlarge the scope of security interaction between EU and ASEAN and place it in a different perspective. Despite the militarization of the South China Sea islets, the problem posed by China to the EU and ASEAN cannot be reduced to its military dimension, nor can it be limited to Southeast Asia alone. The strategic problem generated by China’s rise and behavior is a combination of military issues — the willingness to impose strategic constraints to China’s rivals and enlarge China’s own margins for maneuver — and resource appropriation.

Geographically, this combination is manifest everywhere, from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, including the South China Sea. It also raises problems of a different nature. The use of fishermen as militia, with hundreds of fishing boats at times asserting China’s claims by sheer number, without resorting directly to armed violence, is a specific example of the strategy followed by China, for which other countries are ill equipped to answer. This kind of method, moreover, causes problems far beyond its initial point of application. Vietnamese fishermen caught fishing illegally in areas going from Indonesia to French Polynesian waters, because they were pushed out of their own exclusive economic zone, is only one example of such occurrences. Chinese objectives do not consist in territorial claims, but the linkage between politico–strategic considerations and economic activities is a constant.

However, if China’s strategy complicates the management of all disputes where China is a protagonist, it does also open new grounds for cooperation between the EU and ASEAN. It seems, therefore, necessary to enlarge the scope of EU–ASEAN cooperation, both thematically and geographically, in order to make it strategically relevant.

Environmental maritime security (including the protection of protected wild species; water supply; response to marine pollution; waste management; and illegal, unregulated and unreported [IUU] fishing, etc.) is one such domain which could open the way to concrete cooperation, including the diplomatic one, as the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) on biodiversity is currently being negotiated and should take into account some of these concerns.

Illicit, unregulated and unreported fishing is one such issue. The activities of Chinese fishermen did not only impact the Vietnamese Exclusive Economic Zone, as already mentioned. It also marked the beginning of tensions across the entire South China Sea. A similar phenomenon can be observed today in the Indian Ocean. China is not the only country involved in IUU fishing, but it is the only one which has turned it into an instrument of political penetration, while the potential reaction of victim countries are making the practice of IUU fishing a potential source of conflict.

This would, in turn, open the way for a series of operational cooperations. The creation of marine protected areas as part of the answer to manage and protect the stocks of fish would require a parallel effort in capacity building and sometimes a redefinition of civil–military relations, all topics well in the range of EU capacities and likely to have a real strategic impact. This would moreover require new developments in the field of maritime domain awareness, complementing the activities of the Singapore Information Fusion Center by those of the EU Critical Maritime Route Wider Indian Ocean program, covering the southwest of the Indian Ocean but a replica of which is also being discussed for its northeast area, strengthening moreover other fields of cooperation between the EU and ASEAN.

One may argue that such themes are already being discussed and developed between ASEAN and other interlocutors. The Pacific Environmental Security Forum (PESF), for example, is the US–Indo–Pacific Command’s program to explore solution to environmental security issues throughout the Indo–Pacific region. It is a platform for dialogue between the civilians and the military around environmental security issues in order to promote civil–military cooperation, contribute to capacity building in partner countries, increase surveillance and security of the maritime domain, improve multilateral regional cooperation and strengthen relations between US military and the armed forces of the partner countries. However, the PESF covers the space defined by the US concept of Indo–Pacific (from the western shores of the Americas to India) leaving aside areas which do not belong to ASEAN or the EU, such as Africa and parts of the Gulf, but are of vital interest for both entities.

Making environmental security part of the security dialogue between the EU and ASEAN and defining a joint, concrete project could create some real complementarity, reinforce existing institutions such as Indian Ocean Rim Association, and create the basis for an increased cooperation between the EU and ASEAN on the one side and the US on the other. It would, moreover, diminish the military aspect of the dispute — even if it does not totally eliminate it — and introduce new dimensions for which EU and ASEAN are perhaps better equipped.

The evolution of the EU–ASEAN security relationship, although real, has been so far much slower than those of the strategic environment they are supposed to address, generating frustrations on both sides. Asymmetrical expectations have been part of the problem as ASEAN seemed to expect from the EU security guarantees that the latter was not able to provide. Ultimately, the security relationship has so far almost amounted to a classical problem of coalition building: convergence of interests is central but coalitions do materialize if and only if the expected benefits exceed the costs (including security costs) generated by their creation.

The issue of alignment between EU and ASEAN forums is, therefore, no longer only a matter of similar concerns. It is also an issue of capabilities and strategy. The nature of the strategic problem posed by China as well as the Indo–Pacific framework should permit both sides to escape this dilemma by bringing into the picture a series of global issues calling for local action. Environmental security is one of them. It is not totally absent from EU–ASEAN dialogues — combating IUU fishing is part of the EU–ASEAN plan of action and is part of the recently released ASEAN Indo–Pacific Outlook — but has not figured so far very prominently among their concrete projects. It is only one example of what could be done jointly, but would have the advantage of shifting the interaction between the two entities towards policies within the actual range of capabilities of ASEAN and the EU and would include a normative dimension, which has always been part of the DNA of the latter. Its global character would moreover change the nature of the challenge as the objective would ultimately be to define the terms of a new engagement with Beijing, potentially beneficial to China over the long term. Such an approach would, therefore, be conducive for EU–ASEAN security relations because it would be politically acceptable while strategically meaningful.

This paper was originally published as a special report by the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies.