Beyond China: EU’s New Strategies and ‘Friends’ in Asia

Written by | Wednesday, April 4th, 2018

The EU has finally started thinking about its international partnerships. As for the EU’s relations with Asia, its primary partner has been for the longest time none other than China. At the center of the European agenda was the desire to reap economic benefits off of the Asian powerhouse. But Brussels and Beijing haven’t always seen each other eye to eye on every topic, mainly due to the controversial issues of human rights, which sparked many debates.

It became clear that China doesn’t fully embody the principles of the Western world. It still remains the EU’s main partner in this region, but Brussels is now broadening its horizons and wants to strengthen its relationships with other “like-minded countries”. Moreover, the Brexit vote and the steps of Donald Trump’s administration were also the catalysts for this change of thought. Because the US and the UK can no longer be relied on at all times, the EU needs to find new partnerships with countries with whom its shares the same principles.

A prime example is the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the EU and Japan, signed in June 2017 partially as a response to Trump’s economic nationalism and China’s geo-economic activism in Asia. As for the EU’s relationship with India, the wide representation of European officials at India’s Raisina Dialogue in January 2018 showed that the ties between these two countries are getting stronger.

This also shows that the US is losing its authority, as its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) only led to the remaining eleven counties forming the TPP 2.0, which is known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Even though the US was the largest partner, the other members pulled through and now other countries are showing interest in joining the deal. In an interesting twist of events, even the US itself is now considering rejoining the TPP.

As for the EU and its new partners, when asked about India, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the partnership was natural and made sense, since the EU and India are the world’s largest economies. Even if the EU, India and Japan don’t share the same opinions on some sensitive issues, such as death penalty or personal data protection, they still provide a valuable alternative to the Chinese market, which is losing its appeal somewhat. On the other hand, Japan and India are both concerned about China’s growing economic dominance in the region, which is why strengthening the bonds between these Asian economies and the EU makes sense for them.

But the success of deepening the relations with India and Japans rests solely on the EU’s ability to make compromises. This might mean an adjustment to their political priorities or some policy issues if they don’t want to upset China. The one thing that Beijing might not be so keen on are the talks about the “Indo-Pacific”, which might prove to be a step too bold to be taken so soon. The other question is how will the EU and its partners tackle issues such as terrorism and North Korea? These topics have already been discussed, but what will the real action be? Since North Korea doesn’t pose an immediate threat to Europe, it is way lower on its priority list. The European approach to this issue is also quite different from, for example, the Indian one.

In conclusion, it is important to commend the EU for its efforts to deepen its relationships with the other “like-minded countries”. A proper bond between these players might benefit all of them not only from the economic standpoint but it might also prove helpful in the realms of security, politics and geo-economy. Yet, for this to succeed, the EU must move out of its comfort zone and be willing to make political trade-offs, which are the necessary steps that the EU has so far been unwilling to take.

‘Reimagining Europe’s Partnerships with India and Japan: A New Trilateral?’ – Policy Brief by Maaike Okano-Heijmans – Clingendael / The Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

(The Policy Brief can be downloaded here)

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