The EU has huge economic and security interests in East and Southeast Asia, a reason why it is active in the ASEAN Regional Forum. Critics, however, argue that Europe is lacking a political strategy.
The foreign ministers of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conducted a three-day meeting from August 8 to 10 to discuss the security situation in East and Southeast Asia. Held under the motto: "Moving forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community," this was the 47th meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers.
The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which this year took place in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw, is the only institutionalized security dialogue forum in the Asia-Pacific region. Even US Secretary of State John Kerry and EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton attended the meeting. Also present were the foreign ministers of China, Russia, Australia, India and Japan.
The territorial disputes between some ASEAN members and China over parts of the South China Sea featured predominantly in the talks. Some Southeast Asian countries, along with China, lay competing claims to islands and territories located in the area, which is believed to be rich in fish stocks as well as contain huge oil and gas reserves.
An initiative put forward by the United States and the Philippines aimed at maintaining the status quo in the island dispute and preventing unilateral actions, until a solution is found, was rejected by China at the Regional Forum meeting. Although the EU was represented in Naypyidaw, there wasn't much international coverage about it.
The EU has been increasing its engagement in Southeast Asia for years. In 2012, the 28-member club adopted the "Guidelines on the EU's Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia," with the aim of intensifying exchanges with the region. In the guidelines, the ASEAN nations are described as a "natural counterpart for the EU." Furthermore, the strategy paper stated that regional summits, such as the ARF, deserved special attention from the EU.
The main reason for the enhanced engagement are the significant economic interests the EU has in the region. The volume of bilateral trade between the EU and ASEAN in 2013 amounted to around 167 billion euros, thus making the EU the regional grouping's third biggest trading partner after China and Japan.
The conflict over the South China Sea and the nationalism associated with it are identified both by the 2012 strategy paper as well as the chief operating officer of the European External Action Service, David O'Sullivan, as the biggest risk factor. "The EU has high stakes in the region and we are concerned about recent developments which have raised tensions."
Although the EU has not taken any position with respect to the territorial claims, it has a clear view on how the disputes should be resolved: namely through cooperation within the framework of international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The strengths of the EU as an "active and constructive member of the ARF" lie in this area, says O'Sullivan. "It is true that we as the EU don't have a leading role on hard security issues given the absence of major military assets or bases in the region." But it could also be an advantage, he added.
"We are seen as engaged, but not threatening; active but without a geo-political agenda." In this way, the EU has a niche, in which it could engage as a super-partner and not as another superpower, he stressed, adding that the EU engagement is also welcomed by the ASEAN nations.
For observers such as Gerhard Will, Southeast Asia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), the EU's engagement is lacking in policy. "Not all problems can be solved by a workshop," he said. "To a certain extent the conferences are a diversionary tactic from concrete measures."
The EU should position itself more clearly, particularly regarding international law, Will added. If the Philippines are now seeking a clarification of territorial disputes before an international court, "the EU should make it clear that this is the right way to solve this kind of problem."
The territorial disputes between some ASEAN members and China in the South China Sea figured predominantly during the talks
According to Will, the EU is hesitant because of concerns that the 28-member group will be met with resistance from China. "It's a weakness of the EU that they don't want to upset anyone and ultimately don't pursue any clear political strategy," he says.
May-Britt Stumbaum, director of the EU-China Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), agrees with this view. The EU lacks confidence and leadership ambition, particularly with regards to China, she told DW. "Europe is losing out on shaping the global agenda and is not protecting its own interests."