ASEAN At The Centre Of EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

This file photo shows two Lao high school students holding ASEAN and EU flags. (AFP Photo)

Today, European Union (EU) Ministers launched the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. This strategy marks a major step in Europe’s steadily increasing engagement in a region that is the economic and strategic centre of gravity of today’s world. The Indo-Pacific represents not only 62 percent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) and up to two thirds of global growth, but is also home to some of the main current geopolitical fault lines. 

The EU has a major stake in the region. The Indo-Pacific is the second largest destination of EU exports and home to four out of 10 of the EU’s largest trading partners. To put it simply, the EU is a major economic partner of the region in what is a mutually beneficial relationship. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a stark reminder of the importance of stable supply lines between the Indo-Pacific and the rest of the world and it is clear that its role in a sustainable post-COVID recovery of the global economy will be vital to all of us. 

This picture, however, contrasts with the complex security situation in the Indo-Pacific where tensions are on the rise, fuelled by a worrisome mix consisting of geopolitical rivalries, territorial and maritime disputes, and non-traditional security threats. Just as is the case with the region’s prosperity, the EU and the world have a stake in the stability of the Indo-Pacific.

The new strategy should be seen as a confirmation of the EU’s political commitment to the region that aims to strengthen our existing engagement, upgrade our existing partnerships and make our contributions to the region’s stability and prosperity even more effective. 

Our approach will be both inclusive and flexible, working with all partners in the region who share the same objectives and stand ready to turn these shared principles, values, and interests into concrete cooperation. The EU’s interest in upholding and devising rules-based approaches will serve as the common denominator for these efforts. 

Maritime Cooperation

To give just one example – we will step up maritime cooperation. The EU has a major stake in the free and open maritime supply routes across the Indo-Pacific and in ensuring full compliance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is a commitment that we share with many Asian partners and a precondition for sustainable stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. 

The strategy will also address the current global health emergency. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU has emphasised the need for multilateral solutions by providing necessary support to our partners in the Indo-Pacific region and worldwide, focusing on mitigating its effects, exchanging best practices and, above all, enabling equitable access to safe, effective and affordable vaccines by providing strong backing to the COVAX Facility.

ASEAN is at the centre of the Indo-Pacific and it will come as no surprise that it is at the heart of the EU’s strategy. The EU and ASEAN have solid foundations and a distinguished track record, built over 44 years of robust economic, political and development engagement that make the EU one of ASEAN’s leading and most comprehensive partners. 

In the face of the current pandemic, we came together to address challenges of an unprecedented magnitude by resource-sharing, expert-level exchanges and an unequivocal support to vaccine multilateralism. 

Indo-Pacific Stability

ASEAN has a special role in supporting stability of the Indo-Pacific, which has, in turn, enabled strong economic growth of what is now widely recognised as an important engine of the global economy. Over the years, the ASEAN-led regional architecture has provided a space for dialogue and trust-building across the Indo-Pacific and among countries that see each other as adversaries. 

With geopolitical tensions in the region on the rise, this special space for dialogue must continue to be utilised to ensure stability, peaceful coexistence, and cooperation. The Indo-Pacific Strategy thus commits the EU to further support this regional architecture and ASEAN’s centrality within it. The strategy also lays out our goals to ensure high quality and sustainable connectivity, ensure maritime security and advance collaboration on research, innovation and digitalisation – all priorities which we share with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. 

Earlier this year, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a leading research centre asked opinion-makers, policy-makers, and thought-leaders in Southeast Asia who would be their most favoured and trusted strategic partners in the hedging game against US-China rivalry. More than four in 10 of the respondents picked the EU. 

Building on our long record of engagement, our shared commitment to international rule of law and multilateralism, and our high degree of trust, we look forward to advancing our Strategic Partnership with ASEAN. The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific is good news for Southeast Asia. 

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HE Igor Driesmans is the European Union’s Ambassador to ASEAN. He was Member of Cabinet of Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice‐President of the European Commission until August 2019. Ambassador Igor Driesmans has been an official of the EU since 2003.