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ASEAN-EU Security Connectivity: From Political Declarations to Practical Cooperation

by Patrick Rüppel
Security and multilateralism have become key policy fields for cooperation between ASEAN and the EU. But KAS Senior Program Manager Patrick Rüppel argues that it is necessary to have more practical cooperation projects in these areas if the two regions want to move towards a strategic partnership.

The relationship between ASEAN and the EU displays a striking disconnect. The two organisations share the longest history of cooperation among all ASEAN Dialogue Partners, going back to 1972, and have strong economic and cultural ties. Yet in terms of security cooperation, the relationship has yet to reach its fullest potential, and falls behind many other Dialogue Partners. ASEAN and the EU at times seem frustrated and disappointed, and duly assign responsibility to each other for this state of affairs.

It is often said that neither ASEAN nor the EU is a security actor. While this may be true for a traditional understanding of security, it bears reminding that peace and security have always been at the heart of both organisations, as they are guided by the principles that it is better to trade and cooperate than to fight, and that security can be achieved by non-military means. Our understanding of security has also evolved. Security is no longer viewed exclusively from the lens of hard power as non-traditional issues such as climate change, refugees, violent extremism and terrorism, maritime domain awareness and cybersecurity have come to the fore of national and international security. In these “new” domains, ASEAN and the EU have much to offer.

Before the EU can realise its full potential as a security partner, it has to overcome the long-held misperception that the EU is mainly a trading bloc that does not have a coherent foreign policy or any military capacity. This narrative leads to the erroneous conclusion that the EU brings little value-added to security debates. It ignores Europe’s contributions to security in Asia and reforms within the EU over the past years. While the EU does not possess armed forces by itself, its member states are very active in Southeast Asia. The EU is the world’s largest provider of official development assistance, which underpins its non-military approach and emphasis on preventive measures as critical steps towards achieving sustainable security.

Collectively, the EU member states are the second largest military spender globally. They have more than 40 strategic partnerships in the Asia-Pacific, ten of them with ASEAN member states. In addition, they have over 60 bilateral defence partnerships and security dialogues in Asia-Pacific, 21 of which are with ASEAN member states. 20% of the EU member states’ defence attachés in Asia are posted in Southeast Asia. The EU and its member states collaborate with ASEAN member states in major multilateral security mechanisms, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).

These collective European military capacities will be weakened by the departure of the United Kingdom (UK) which has the strongest army and maintains close defence links with Southeast Asia, including through the Five Power Defence Arrangements. It is however also true that the UK has been critical of and opposed to enhanced European defence cooperation. Going against the grain, the EU has deepened its security and defence cooperation in the wake of the Brexit vote, including the creation of the European Defence Fund (EDF), the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) headquarters, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework, the European Peace Facility (EPF) and the European Intervention Initiative (EI2). These developments demonstrate the political will and realisation that defence and security are key policy areas where “more Europe” is desirable. Likewise, the EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) sheds light on the EU’s intention to strive for strategic autonomy and an interest-driven foreign policy based on the common priorities defined in the document, reflecting its new maturity and a more realistic view of the world.

To be sure, the EU is a different type of security actor compared to the US or China, often more complicated and slower due to its nature and the fact that it has to respect the interests of its member states. A possible joint defence industry still faces considerable hurdles and there will not be any EU armed forces in the near future. Therefore, the EU needs to focus on the areas where it can deliver to avoid expectation-capability gaps. It has to steer its foreign and security policy forward despite internal challenges and the more complex and fragmented political realities in the European Parliament following the recent elections.

On the part of ASEAN, being receptive to a stronger EU role in the region will expand its space for maneuver and options for hedging to avoid over-dependencies and binary decisions. It must be open to acknowledging EU projects as important contributions to regional peace and stability. Furthermore, the EU and ASEAN share an unflinching commitment to multilateralism and the rules-based order. Both sides have similar strategic concerns over the impact of major power rivalries, uncertainties of the US’ role as the security guarantor in both regions, their respective institutional cohesion and unity, and weakening support for the regional project. Both organisations are also facing transnational and interconnected security issues that require multilateral, non-military solutions.

These common interests and the aspiration for a closer partnership are recently affirmed in the Joint Statement on the 40th Anniversary of the ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations, Plan of Action 2018-2022 and Council Conclusion on enhanced EU security cooperation in and with Asia. At the 2019 Ministerial Meeting both parties agreed in principle to upgrade the relations to a Strategic Partnership. The EU will apply for observership status in the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Groups (EWG) activities to anchor its security role and commitment to ASEAN. Furthermore, the 2018 EU Strategy on “Connecting Asia and Europe” will provide financing and establish connections to promote partnerships based on commonly agreed rules and standards, including on transparency and procurement.

The reasons for the EU’s growing interest in Asian security are manifold. It is certainly a reaction to Chinese behavior and the impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which are perceived as being unfair, dividing the EU and undermining its space for maneuver. At the same time, the BRI and the Indo-Pacific concept bring Europe and Asia closer together and provide new opportunities for collaboration. Since ASEAN and the EU are at the risk of being sidelined by those initiatives, they should work together to play an active part and ensure that both strategies respect rules, norms, good governance and sustainability. The EU also realised that its own prosperity depends directly on peace and stability in Asia – on land, in the air and maritime domain.

In order to sustain this momentum, it is crucial to move beyond political declarations and have more activities that produce concrete outcomes. This can include EU-run capacity building projects, joint freedom of navigation operations or port calls by European ships, but must go beyond the military arena by supporting confidence-building measures, preventive diplomacy and a multilateral security environment in which unilateral actions are more costly, even for major powers. Both sides should coordinate their agendas, join forces at multilateral fora and enhance multi-layered cooperation that could be region-to-region, member state-to-region or among member states. Through such practical cooperation, the EU and ASEAN can contribute to cooperative security in the region and the rules-based multilateral order as a whole.

Mr. Patrick Rueppel is Senior Program Manager for Foreign and Security Policy, Geopolitics at the Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

Contact Person

Patrick Rüppel

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Senior Programme Manager for Foreign and Security Policy, Geopolitics +65 6603 6166 +65 6227 8343