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Tackling Sour EU-ASEAN Relations

The European Union believes trade with the countries in south east Asia has a promising future. Human rights questions, however, are throwing a wrench in attempts to improve political and economic relations.

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Germany's Infineon already produces silcon wafers in Singapore

The 21st century was to be the Asian century, one in which the countries ranging from India to the southeastern Asian states and lastly to China, were to dominate. This is an assessment that Marco Bünte from Hamburg's Institute for Asian Affairs still holds to be true.

"Asia is the largest growing region in the world and it will remain this way," he said. "Plus it has the largest population. That's why it will be the Asian century."

China naturally leads the way economically, but the Association of South East Asian States, ASEAN, also plays a large role in the Far East. Over 500 million people live in the ten member states: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Companies from the EU are increasing their presence there. According to statistics from the German Foreign Office, ASEAN is the EU's second-largest market and third-largest trading partner in Asia. In addition, the EU is the second-largest investor in ASEAN.

EU seeks stronger ties

Jean Asselborn

Luxembourg Foreign Minister and President of the EU Council Jean Asselborn is in Jakarta to patch up strained ties between the EU and ASEAN

Strengthening ties to the Tiger States and the newly industrializing countries that make up ASEAN will be one of the more daunting tasks of Jean Asselborn, foreign minister of Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU presidency, during his current trip to the region. He is in Jakarta to participate in an ASEAN ministers meeting that began Thursday. Official ministerial relations between the EU and the association exist since 1978, the oldest regional partner the EU has, but a number of issues have strained ties recently.

Bünte said the largest problem can be summed up in one word: Myanmar. Myanmar entered ASEAN in 1997 and ever since then "there has been constant criticism from the EU." Brussels is critical of Rangoon because the military leaders have done all within their means to suppress the opposition and supporters of democracy.

Most importantly, Myanmar's regime continues to keep the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, in custody.

"Those are things that the EU, which also considers itself a community of values, cannot accept," Bünte said.

How can progress be made?

Brussels firm stance on human rights questions is damaging contacts to ASEAN. The association makes it clear that the domestic affairs of individual states are just that and that no member state will meddle in another state's internal affairs. Hence, the EU is constantly rebuked by the association for its criticism. In return, Brussels covers it ears.

Aung San Suu Kyi verhaftet

The detention of Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is a bone of contention between the EU and ASEAN

The matter may reach a head in 2006, however, when Myanmar assumes the presidency of ASEAN. Bünte said he thinks that then communications between the two may break down completely.

"The EU, in my opinion, will not sit at the same table as Myanmar," he said.

European companies are looking for a political thaw between the EU and ASEAN to improve their position in the southeastern Asian market. In the recent past, countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia have signed free-trade agreements. While countries like the USA and Japan, even New Zealand and China have benefited, the EU has been left out in the cold. Bünte said the ink has dried to a whole series of trade agreements but no EU country is amongst the signatories. In turn, opening the door to this booming market is more difficult.

Environment issues also a concern

As ASEAN economies grow, damage to the environment takes on a wider scope. And not just for the individual countries. Environmental matters have become cross-boundary matters.

Smog in Jakarta

Smog has lain thick over Indonesian cities, here Jakarta, in the past as forest fires have ravaged the country

"Southeast Asia is losing its natural forests at the fastest pace. The negative consequences are of global dimensions, which means they affect us," reads the German Foreign Office's assessment of the situation, which goes on to say that the country with the most forestland, Indonesia, must pay particular attention to the issue.

But the EU cannot put the cart in front of the horse. In order to have any influence over the environmental policies of ASEAN members, it must first create a friendly political climate. Otherwise, "made in Asia" may not only be a symbol for the economic boom of the continent, but also for environmental disasters.

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