MY VISIT to Jakarta and ASEAN last week underlined the European Union’s (EU) commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, and it reconfirmed a clear demand in the region for more cooperation and EU presence. All my interlocutors stressed that they want to shape a broad common agenda for cooperation: from the pandemic and recovery, to connectivity and trade, from the green agenda to the key area of security.
As the EU, we are well aware that the global center of gravity is shifting towards the Indo-Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific creates 60% of global GDP and two-thirds of global growth. It is the second largest destination for EU exports and home to four out of the EU’s top 10 trading partners. Around 40% of the EU’s foreign trade passes through the South China Sea. The EU is also the top investor in and development assistance provider for the Indo-Pacific.
The EU is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) number one development partner, and its third trade partner and investor. EU exports to ASEAN countries grew from €54 billion in 2010 to €85 billion in 2019 and our imports grew even more, from €72 billion to €125 billion.
These numbers remind us of our strong connection and the big stakes the EU has in this dynamic part of the world.
The Indo-Pacific region is the future, but the present is just as important. Insecurity and tensions are rising, threatening the order and balance of this region. Stability, development, and economic growth rests on openness, on stable and shared rules, and shared security, and the EU’s interest is precisely this: that the regional order stays rules-based and free and open for all. We can contribute to this significantly and our regional partners, who view the EU as a trusted and reliable actor, recognize this.
Last year, we upgraded EU-ASEAN relations between the two most advanced regional integration schemes of the world to a Strategic Partnership, after we had established dialogue relations in 1977. This was long overdue and important, because in a world of power politics and general uncertainty, ASEAN and the EU should pull together. Our bonds with ASEAN are founded on a joint commitment to rules-based multilateralism. Currently, ASEAN is a bit like the “swing state” in the wider Indo-Pacific, where the US and China are throwing their weight around. ASEAN countries are united by their wish not to be cajoled by US-China strategic competition. ASEAN is the nucleus around which inclusive forms of regional cooperation are built, and regional integration is a way to safeguard our respective “strategic autonomy.”
The EU launched in April 2021 an Indo-Pacific strategy, with one key message: we want to step up our engagement and work with our partners to boost trade and investment, economic openness, and a sustainable approach to connectivity in the region. Besides being an economic powerhouse, the EU is also ready to be a political and security actor in the region and to do more work on strategic and security issues, in particular maritime security. We already have a dialogue with ASEAN on maritime security cooperation, and are currently extending our Critical Maritime Routes Program, which strengthens regional maritime surveillance capacities from the Indian Ocean to South East Asia. We are also exploring options to enhance the EU’s maritime presence in the vast Indo-Pacific space.
Furthermore, we have to step up cooperation to respond to the ongoing “democratic recession” worldwide and the growing attacks on pluralism and political freedoms. Myanmar is the most dramatic case in point in this regard in South-East Asia. The EU looks to ASEAN leadership in this situation and we are ready to back more regional engagement. Given the complete refusal by the military junta to engage in negotiations and their growing repression, the EU is also working on a new sanctions package to further defend human rights. Many countries and certainly the people in this region share our view: these values and principles are universal and people should determine their own political future and have their rights protected. Often, as we see in Myanmar, the erosion of such rights and freedoms comes with severe consequences for one’s personal safety and security.
Beyond the regional angle, the EU and the Philippines are close partners bound by shared values and common interests such as the support to a rules based international order and mutual beneficial trade. I hope to engage very soon with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. to explore how to deepen our bilateral, regional, and multilateral agenda even further.
The Philippines-EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement is being implemented with the recent holding of three subcommittee meetings in trade and investment; human rights and governance; and development cooperation. These meetings illustrated our mutual interest in constructive cooperation in a variety of areas.
The pandemic has shown us that cooperation is key to achieve a green and sustainable economic recovery.
Furthermore, the Philippines will also hold a key role as ASEAN coordinator for Dialogue Relations with the EU starting next August. The three years ahead will be crucial for the full implementation of the ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership.
The EU’s message is clear: we want to do more with the Philippines, ASEAN, in South East Asia, and in the wider region. ASEAN, and the people of the region, can count on the European Union to be a strong and reliable partner as we jointly tackle the challenges of our time.
Josep Borrell is the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission.