Panel Report: EU-ASEAN Mutual Perceptions

Panel Report: EU-ASEAN Mutual Perceptions

The second panel of IFAIR’s Interregional Online Workshop EU-ASEAN Perspectives dealt with perceptions of Self and Other within the EU and ASEAN, and with the impacts of these images on the relations between the two regions.Trade and security were the main policy areas in which the participants traced misperceptions and outlined possible ways of improving cooperation.

Views from the academia, the diplomatic community and the private sector

The second panel of the IFAIR Impact Group EU-ASEAN Perspectives addressed the aspect of mutual perceptions. The guiding questions were four-fold: What patterns of self-perception and perception by others are prominent regarding the respective integration processes in ASEAN and in the EU? What narratives or frames shape the political or academic discourse on regional integration? What role do historical experiences play? Which roles are ascribed to the different regions on a global level?

Based on both the academic literature and individual experience, Sandra Silfvast, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, Felix Sharief, research analyst for ASEAN and regional security at the British embassy in Jakarta, and Nelly Stratieva, project manager in the private sector specialized on ASEAN countries, shared their view on this issue. The panel including the subsequent discussion among all participants was chaired by Lukas Rudolph, head of the division “South and East Asia” at IFAIR e.V.

EU self-perception and its perception of ASEAN

As Silfvast argued in her discussion paper, the EU sees itself as an actor sui generis that constitutes a political and economic model of regional integration and is supposed to act as an integration exporter, integration entrepreneur and norm diffuser. This self-perception regularly appears in its interregional dialogue, both with ASEAN and other regional integration projects, and implies that the different actors are not discussing on the same level. Hence, that aspect of EU self-perception can be framed as ‘integration snobbery’, prohibiting the EU ASEAN relations to develop into an equal partnership. From the EU’s perspective, it is mainly depending on ASEAN whether interregional cooperation will be strengthened. Generally, Brussels’ interest in ASEAN is low, as the EU rather focuses on China, India and Japan. This further complicates the relations. Nevertheless, over the past two years there has been an increased interest in the region that goes beyond economic and trade cooperation.

Stratieva located the European perspective on ASEAN within its wider perceptions of Asia. She explained that Europeans see Asia as a very fragmented entity and focus on bilateral relations with individual countries. In this, they apply a state-centric perspective. As trade interests dominate European thinking in bilateral relations, Asia sometimes is represented in terms such as ‘giant’ or ‘competitor’, suggesting that is was something to be afraid of. In a political sense, there is a focus on non-ASEAN countries, mainly China – a findin that reflected Silfvast’s earlier remarks. This has to be attributed to the simplistic way that some European media portray Asia, which leads to a neglect of other countries than the big ones. Even when Asia is mentioned in the media, it has something to do with economics. Stratieva personally experienced that European media is primarily interested in an affirmation of widespread stereotypes. She further pointed out that Europeans think little of the regional cooperation in ASEAN due to differences to the European experience in integration. However, she added for consideration that ASEAN mechanisms for regional cooperation mostly do a good job for maintaining relatively peaceful relations.

Based on a widespread argument in the literature, Rudolph added that the EU considers itself as a civilian power, a normative power as well as a soft power with a value-driven agenda. This implies the self-perception of the EU as a benign power that is inherently ‘good’, although it is doubtful if other actors share this view.

ASEAN self-perception and its perception of the EU

Sharief concentrated in his presentation on the political and security engagement between the EU and ASEAN with regard to regional security in the Asia-Pacific area. In its self-perception, ASEAN plays a central role in the regional security architecture of the Asia-Pacific. In this regard, it has established three platforms: the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). As to Sharief, the EU is perceived by ASEAN as aiming at greater influence in the security system of the region. Particularly, the EU would like to become part of the ADMM-Plus, a platform for ASEAN and eight dialogue partners. This aspiration, however, is perceived by ASEAN countries as unjustified, not only because of the enormous geographical distance but also due to the EU’s lacking international weight in security matters. In contrast to EU involvement, a participation of France e. g. in these regional fora would be regarded as more legitimate, since France as a former colonial power has historic ties with the region and relevant military capabilities. EU attempts to play a role in the regional security architecture are assumed to be merely a strategy to securing its economic interests.

Reciprocal perceptions: reproducing the own paradigm

Quoting from the literature, Stratieva argued that Asians would attribute the lack of a unified EU voice in foreign policy to a lack of willingness in European integration. Europeans, in contrast, would explain a lack of unified voice in ASEAN by referring to an inability of Asia to come together; non-integration is rather seen as a failure, not a common choice. This reveals that the perception of the other is always guided by its own paradigm. Whilst the EU is more legalistic, the ‘ASEAN Way’ is rather compromise-based. These self-images lead to a tendency to overlook the fact that the two integration processes differ in their ends and means. Consequently, there needs to be a greater understanding of the validity of both processes as a means of achieving its members’ respective goals.

The EU as a role model?

In the following discussion including all participants, it was debated whether ASEAN should be blamed for being different from the EU. There was a general view that ASEAN’s different mode of cooperation should be acknowledged since transferring one model to another region is normally not possible. Important differences between both integration projects support this argument. While the EU has a relatively unified self-conception and shares a common history, ASEAN countries display a high degree of heterogeneity in terms of culture, political systems and levels of socio-economic development, which complicates the definition of common policies. While the common history of colonization offers some ground for a collective identity, the colonial histories of the individual countries actually differ significantly, and Thailand has in fact never been a colony. Consequently, while Southeast Asian officials such as Thanat Khoman, one of the ‘founding fathers’ of ASEAN, have described the EU as a model of regional integration, it was agreed that it will not be wholeheartedly emulated by ASEAN. Rather, the European way can serve as an inspiration from which to learn. The ASEAN states have drawn expertise from specific aspects of the EU experience and adapted certain elements in line with their needs while rejecting others, and will continue to do so.

A lack of knowledge about regional integration

A point of debate was the political relevance of different kinds of misperceptions. Stratieva noted that ignorance about regional integration in general is widespread in both regions. Mutual misperceptions were often used as an excuse by officials for the failure of cooperation between the EU and ASEAN. However, a problem that might even be more fundamental are the low levels of knowledge about the own integration project. For example, some European businesses have in the past failed to realize the competencies of the Commission in trade negotiations. This has, from Stratieva’s experience, very real policy implications when it comes to negotiating free trade agreements with ASEAN member states. On a more general level, she warned, limited knowledge about integration among the public breeds the danger of regional cooperation becoming an elite process.

The dominant role of trade interests in interregional relations

The question whether the EU has a substantial security interest in Asia was a further subject of intense discussion. Some argued against it and underlined that the EU’s interests are solely trade-oriented. Others highlighted that security and trade are interlinked issues as trade cannot be conducted smoothly within an unstable region. For example, the conflict in the South China Sea, which is said to be the third most important shipping route globally, is an immediate security threat affecting the EU’s economic interests.

As a consequence, the issue was raised if the EU’s attempt to gain economic influence in South East Asia was doomed to fail because it neglected the political aspect. Although it was hardly possible to find a definitive answer, the participants revealed that in case of a loss of the EU’s political weight, European countries tend to act outside the EU framework and emphasize bilateral relations. For example, this was carried out by Germany when the Euro Crisis was at its peak. Although this could indeed be a hint for a decreasing economic influence of the EU, Sharief argued on a normative basis in favour of a deeper involvement of the EU in the Asia-Pacific security architecture in the ARF framework to increase the EU’s legitimacy in addressing regional security issues. Particularly, he called for a revitalization of the Union’s membership in the ARF’s Track-two mechanism, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), which has been put on hold five years ago due to internal issues.

United in uncertainty about the own international role

Although there are identity-finding processes in both regions, it was agreed that neither the EU nor ASEAN are sure about their potential role on a global level. Therefore, both lack a common ground for cooperation with a global outlook. This was seen as deplorable since issues such as the international financial order or climate change would be topics where common interests could be advanced in worldwide fora.

An idea which found a considerable echo among the participants was that, for some policy areas, the EU and ASEAN might be the wrong institutions for an institutional dialogue between Asia and Europe to take place. Consequently, other potential venues should be considered as additional venues for dialogue, for example collaboration between the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) and the ARF, as both share a similar approach to security issues that is consensus-oriented and conclusive.

by Steffen Murau

The author is Director of IFAIR’s EU/Europe Division and a member of the Impact Group EU-ASEAN Perspectives.

Read the reports of the other panels and find additional information on the workshop on the >> [Impact Group website].