EU faces uphill task beefing up defence ties with Asia

The head of the European Union’s foreign and security policy, Josep Borrell, will not attend a major defense summit in Asia this weekend after he tested positive for COVID-19, leaving the bloc at a potential disadvantage as it tries to convince Indo-Pacific partners that it is a true security actor. . in the region.

An EU spokesperson said Borrell tested positive for the coronavirus last week. Brussels has been waiting to see if he can submit a negative test result, but it was confirmed Thursday night that he would not be able to attend.

DW understands that the bloc will instead be represented by Gunnar Wiegand, managing director of the European External Action Service in the Asia Pacific region. But this means that the EU will not be represented in the ministerial committees at the summit, nor is it likely to be able to make commitments to key partners in the region.

This could be a problem for the European Union, eager to prove that it is a major security player in the region and has not been distracted by the war in Ukraine.

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What is on the agenda and who is attending?

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) hosts the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defense summit, annually in Singapore. It will take place from 10-12 June.

Keynote speeches will be given by China’s Minister of National Defense, Wei Fengyi, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Kishida Fumio, Prime Minister of Japan.

France, Germany and Britain are also expected to send high-level delegations. Among those in attendance was the French Armed Forces Minister Sebastien Licornu.

The EU had hoped to present its case as an important security actor in the region, and the meeting would have also provided Borrell with opportunities to meet privately on the sidelines with his American, Chinese and other Asian counterparts. On June 12, a plenary session will be held on “Common Challenges to Defense of Asia, the Pacific and Europe”.

EU strategy

Heng Yi Kwang, a University of Tokyo graduate student, said the EU would primarily want to reassure regional partners that it remains committed to security in the Indo-Pacific despite its interest and resources due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. College of Public Policy.

Analysts do not expect EU representatives to slow down much on issues surrounding the Ukraine war, as many countries in the Indo-Pacific believe that the West is overly focused on this conflict and has lost interest in problems closer to home, such as escalating tensions. between China and Taiwan.

The EU’s Indo-Pacific Cooperation Strategy, published last September, was unequivocally clear that the bloc “intends to increase its engagement with the region”.

Nicola Leveringhouse, a specialist in East Asian security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said naval, electronic and counter-terrorism services are three European defense interests especially in the Indo-Pacific region.

A German frigate, Bayern, returned home in February after seven months in the Indo-Pacific, conducting freedom-of-navigation operations and joint exercises with the navies of Australia, Singapore, Japan and the United States. France and the United Kingdom have also deployed naval vessels to the area in recent years.

The European Union and Japan conducted a joint naval exercise off the coasts of the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea last October. The two sides pledged to “strengthen our already close consultations on security and defense” at the EU-Japan summit last month.

“The security of the Indo-Pacific is also important to the European Union because of its relations with China and the United States,” said Leveringhouse.

She added that “the geopolitical competition between the United States and China within the region complicates the security challenges there and the consequences for the European Union and its member states.”

Tense relations with China

The EU’s relationship with China has greatly deteriorated since 2020, with the two sides exchanging sanctions on each other’s officials in 2021, and Brussels suspending an agreed investment agreement.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei last visited Brussels in March 2021, and this weekend’s summit would have given Borrell an opportunity to discuss key issues, including Beijing’s intentions on Taiwan.

“We know we are not the United States or China, but we have an important role to play,” a German Foreign Ministry official said.

Aside from major security issues, the EU will want to discuss securing global free trade and making supply chains resilient with Asian partners at the summit. The EU also hopes to find greater cooperation on climate action by presenting it as “green growth” and securing supply chains, said policy expert Kwang.

Does the European Union have any influence in Asia?

At the summit, the EU representative is expected to talk about ASEAN’s centralization, ongoing support for COVID-19 vaccination campaigns and cybersecurity with regional partners.

In 2019, Vietnam became the second Asian country, after South Korea, to sign a framework partnership agreement on security with the European Union.

Last year, Singapore joined the European Union’s Enhanced Security Cooperation in and with Asia (ESIWA), a security project sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office and France’s Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. It also includes India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam.

The year 2022 marks the 45th anniversary of relations between the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Only 0.8% of Southeast Asian elites believe the EU has the most political and strategic influence in the region, compared to 1.7% last year, according to the annual State of Southeast Asia surveys published by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Only 16% said they had the strongest confidence in the EU to provide leadership to maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law, down from 32% last year.

The European Union still has a long way to go to convince regional partners that it is a true security player in the region, particularly amid heightened tensions between the United States and China. He is expected to see how Borrell’s absence from the first defense summit this week affects that message.

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