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EU-ASEAN summit to build trade ties amid global crises

Priyanka Shankar
December 13, 2022

Leaders from Europe and Southeast Asia are hopeful a summit this week will usher in an era of better economic ties and help European producers in Asia diversify away from China.

Cranes at Hamburg harbor in Germany
Building trade ties tops the agenda at this week's EU-ASEAN summitImage: Hauke-Christian Dittrich/picture alliance

Leaders from the European Union and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are kicking off their first ever in-person summit in Brussels on Wednesday, commemorating 45 years of diplomatic relations.

"I see it as an opportunity for the EU and ASEAN to commit to their strategic partnership and shared commitment of following the rules-based international order amid current geopolitical tensions," an EU official told reporters prior to the summit.

"We are glad, too, that our ASEAN partners share our concerns on Russia's aggression in Ukraine," the official said, adding that Europeans also need to pay attention to security challenges in Myanmar, the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea.

However, geopolitical and economic tensions in the Indo-Pacific region are centered firmly on China. Amid icy relations with Beijing, boosting trade relations with ASEAN is a priority for EU leaders

Charles Santiago, chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), told DW that countries in Asia need a counterweight against China's influence in the region, particularly the South China Sea, and the EU is looking to lure ASEAN away from forging stronger ties with Russia.  

However, Santiago said that an ASEAN-EU free-trade agreement is not yet on the negotiating table.

"Europe wants to keep its trade relations with ASEAN based around a couple of things. First, the EU is looking for a source of raw materials like lithium, which ASEAN can provide. At the moment, any trade talks will focus on containing China and Russia's overwhelming influence," he said. 

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No EU-ASEAN free-trade deal, for now 

ASEAN is the EU's third-largest trading partner after the US and China, trading goods worth more than €215.9 billion ($229.9 billion) in 2021. 

Chemical products, machinery and transport equipment are the EU's main exports to ASEAN countries, while imports include machinery and transport equipment, agricultural products, textiles and clothing. 

Both blocs began negotiations on a free trade agreement in 2007, but instead opted for bilateral trade deals.

However, according to the European Commission, these bilateral trade and investment agreements could serve as a foundation for a future EU-ASEAN trade agreement. 

The EU began trade negotiations with individual ASEAN countries like Singapore and Malaysia in 2010, Vietnam in 2012, Thailand in 2013, the Philippines in 2015 and Indonesia in 2016.  

While agreements with Singapore and Vietnam have been completed, at the summit tomorrow, the EU hopes to resume trade talks with Thailand and the new governments of the Philippines and Malaysia. Ongoing trade talks with Indonesia are also expected to be discussed bilaterally. 

"There is still a lot of untapped potential in the ASEAN, which is on track to become the fifth largest economy in the world in the next four or five years, and we want to complete more bilateral trade agreements. It is also important for us to diversify our supply and demand chains," an EU official told reporters.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen is also expected to put forward an EU investment package to develop renewable energy, transportation, the digital sector and infrastructure with ASEAN countries, the official added.

Joe Biden addresses the ASEAN summit
An ASEAN-US summit in November focused on strategic issuesImage: CINDY LIU/REUTERS

Human rights taking a back seat? 

Human rights organizations like Frontline Defenders have issued a statement calling on ASEAN leaders to also discuss human rights issues during the summit.

The coup in Myanmar, and the recent passing of a new criminal code in Indonesia that criminalizes criticism of the government and sex outside marriage, are two of several human rights issues confronting ASEAN countries.

However, according to Santiago, human rights and democracy issues are not a priority when trade and economics are on the agenda.

"Democracy takes a back seat, and good governance and human rights take a back seat, when the priority is trade," he said.

"Whether it's ASEAN or the Europeans, amid the current geopolitical situation of containing China for the ASEAN and weaning off dependency from Russia for the EU, boosting trade ties and connectivity are on the main agenda both blocs are keen to push," he added.

"But regarding Myanmar, I was in touch with a European commissioner, focusing on the situation in Myanmar and talks on the country's future in ASEAN and human rights violations will be held at the summit. Whether it will lead to a final agreement between both blocs on dealing with Myanmar is still unknown," Santiago said.

An EU-ASEAN joint statement which will also focus on boosting multilateral ties, is expected to be issued after the summit.

Can ASEAN do more to stop the violence in Myanmar?

Edited by: Wesley Rahn