December 07, 2020

The EU’s Image Problem in Southeast Asia

The United States and China have by far the most visual economic and political influence in Southeast Asia. Yet, the EU is also failing to gain ground in comparison to other “middle powers” like Japan.

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Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (C) and other leaders attend the launching ceremony of ASEAN Smart Logistics Network (ASLN) with first project "Vinh Phuc ICD Logistics Center (Superport)" as part of the 37th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam November 14, 2020.
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Southeast Asia is Brussels’ kind of region. Its combined GDP is around $3 trillion and its economies are growing rapidly. The European Union is the largest provider of foreign-direct investment in the region and ranks among the top three importers for most of the states in the region, which is important for their export-reliant economies. The regional bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), also allows for bloc-to-bloc multilateralism, and most of the region’s governments are desperate for “middle powers” to break the US-China rivalry. Moreover, Thailand is the only regional state that wasn’t colonized by a European power at one point in time, and imperialism has left Europe with a lot of soft power in the region: English remains the region’s lingua franca; Europe is the second-most preferred holiday destination; and European universities are the third-highest picks for tertiary education abroad, helped by generous EU grants. 

But the latest “State of Southeast Asia” survey, conducted by the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, was a mixed bag for the EU. When respondents were asked which state or bloc they most trusted to champion the global free trade agenda, the EU came in second place with 25.5 percent, just behind Japan (27.6 percent) but way ahead of the US and China. When asked about leadership in maintaining the “rules-based order and upholding international law,” the EU came in first with 33 percent, ahead of 24.3 percent for the US, and 20 percent for Japan. However, the percentage of respondents who thought the EU was the most influential economic power in the region dropped to just 0.6 percent, down from 1.7 percent in the previous year’s survey. (Japan hung on at around the 4 percent mark.) As for the most political and strategic influence, the EU rose from 0.7 percent in 2019 to 1.1 percent in 2020, but this still put it behind Japan.

A Visibility Deficit

It isn’t all that surprising. The US and China have by far the most visual economic and political influence in the region and their new rivalry since 2017 has only reinforced this narrative. However, it does show the EU is failing to gain ground when compared to the other “middle powers” like Japan. The EU ambassador to ASEAN, Igor Driesmans, told me last month that the EU suffers from a “visibility deficit” in the region, although he noted this wasn’t exceptional to Southeast Asia. “It is hard enough already to get people to write and read about the EU and EU policies within Europe,” he said. “So, we are aware of this issue and are actively working on it, as we try to systematically improve our visibility across the region. It is easier said than done, but we keep working.”

Partly, this is down to issues like public relations, which can be easily addressed.  For example, Driesmans has fewer Twitter followers (3,558) than the US Ambassador to Cambodia (6,751). Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, two US state-funded news agencies, are among the largest providers of media content in the region. No Europe-based publication compares, not even to the presence of Chinese-language media, which has ballooned in recent years. Moreover, EU policy-making is overly bureaucratic and moves at a glacial pace, making it difficult to understand (even for European reporters in the region).  

That said, it is likely that progress will be made in the coming years. As noted earlier, the EU is the most trusted in the region as a champion of a rules-based order and for upholding international law. This position could be solidified if the EU adopts an expansive Indo-Pacific policy (which it is now working on), especially if it takes a more frequent and forceful stance on the importance of international law in the South China Sea disputes. France adopted an Indo-Pacific strategy last year, while Germany announced one in September, and the Netherlands last month.

Pulled in Two

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, noted in September that the German guidelines will be “a useful contribution” to the EU’s own policy, so it’s probable that Brussels will also make the ASEAN region the center of its Indo-Pacific vision.  Its outline will also likely speak to Southeast Asian fears that their region is being pulled in two by the US-China rivalry. The German strategy states that it will steer clear of the Washington-Beijing battlelines, and that “a new bipolarity with fresh dividing lines across the Indo-Pacific would undermine [our economic] interests.”

And, as noted earlier, the EU is the second-most respected in the region, after Japan, for championing a global free trade agenda. On this front, optimism should be more caged. Although it is on the outside looking in when it comes to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the newly-signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), two of the world’s largest free trade pacts, Borrell wrote last month that the EU shouldn’t feel left out. “Just as we believe in free and fair trade and in multilateralism ... so we can be happy when others also take this path to enhance their own prosperity,” he stated. “And by growing the global economy, RCEP will help provide more—not fewer—opportunities for trade with the region.”

Less conspicuous than RCEP, the EU-supported ASEAN Customs Transit System, an online transit management system, was introduced just last week. The planned EU-ASEAN comprehensive air transport agreement (the “first of its kind,” according to Borrell) might be signed before the end of the year. The EU member states also contribute around half of the funds to the €1.2 billion ASEAN Catalytic Green Finance Facility, and next year will see the start of the EU-funded ASEAN Smart Cities Network. (In time, these could improve the EU’s reputation as an economic power in the region.) 

One question, though, is whether the momentum has gone out of the relationship. Optimism soured last year when it became clear that there wouldn’t be a free trade agreement (FTA) between the EU and the whole of the ASEAN bloc, due to Southeast Asian hesitancy and the European Commission’s realization that wildly-varying environmental and labor rights issues across the region may produce problems in Brussels, especially amongst MEPs critical of trade deals that put profits above rights. 

Bilateralism Dominates

EU leaders are still keen on a bloc-to-bloc deal, as Driesmans and Charles Michel, the European Council president, said last month at the EU-ASEAN Business Summit. For now, though, the immediate future appears bilateral. The EU has ratified FTAs with Singapore and Vietnam, both of which are boasting strong outcomes. But negotiations for trade pacts with Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia appear to have stalled. With Jakarta, a trade deal won’t happen until a solution to its disputes over the EU’s planned phasing out of palm-oil imports.

Indonesia, the world’s largest palm-oil producer, has taken the matter to the WTO. Negotiations with Malaysia remain frozen and are unlikely to begin until that palm-oil decision is reached, as Malaysia is the world’s second-largest producer. For the Philippines, one imagines there won’t be any progress until President Rodrigo Duterte leaves office in 2022, because of his human rights record. That leaves Thailand as Brussels’ best hope for another FTA in Southeast Asia, although Bangkok appears hesitant about restarting negotiations that stalled after its military coup in 2014. 

As might be understood from these examples, one problem facing the EU is when to put values ahead of improved alliances. A concern for any democratic power, but one made all the more difficult because of the EU’s image problem. Southeast Asia isn’t a bastion of democracy and human rights (in fact, conditions have deteriorated in recent years) but its governments are well-accustomed to being harangued by Americans for their domestic political situation. Less so when being lectured by Europeans. 

Focus on Human Rights

In the eyes of many Southeast Asian leaders, Brussels “has to get off its high horse and see itself as an equal to Southeast Asia, and [that it] needs Southeast Asia even more than Southeast Asia needs Europe,” Bridget Welsh, a political analyst at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, told me in September. EU leaders clearly recognize this opinion and appear eager to dispel it.  Michel, the European Council president, said during his keynote speech at the EU-ASEAN Business Summit on November 19: “We need to learn from each other and exchange best practices,” adding later on: “The European Union and ASEAN need each other.”

To be fair, this isn’t solely a problem caused by the EU. Southeast Asian leaders grew frustrated when the Trump administration stopped sending senior officials to attend their regional conferences from 2019 onwards, yet they were also frustrated when senior officials of the Obama administration did show up regularly but also spoke up frequently about human rights. It’s clear that Southeast Asian leaders would prefer “engaged indifference” from Western partners. 

“In the competition of great powers, Europe’s support for democracy is an important source of our power of attraction,” Borrell wrote last month. Through the newly-adopted Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, the EU purports to expand its support for democracy-building around the world, while its soon-to-be-adopted EU human right sanctions regime provides Brussels with new mechanisms to punish those who aren’t on board. 

The question, then, is whether the EU’s “visibility deficit” is impairing its ability to support democracy-building in places like Southeast Asia (and its reputation as a political power) or whether democracy-building is a means of rectifying its “visibility deficit.” This will be a balancing act for Brussels, although Southeast Asia is an ideal place for the EU to experiment with becoming a strategic power. 

David Hutt is a political journalist reporting from the Czech Republic and the UK on Europe-Asian affairs.

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