After lambasting both Tokyo and Beijing over their trade and currency policies, the new President of the United States has made constructive contact with the leaders of both Japan and China.
But conflicting statements by American policymakers indicate that Washington will take time to craft a lucid, well-thought-out policy towards Asia.
As America reassesses its Asia policy, Europe must redefine its own relationship with the region. Asia’s economic growth continues to be strong, but political antagonisms and rivalries are on the rise.
North Korea’s recent firing of an intermediate-range ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast, the first such test since the US election, is one important indication of Asia’s significance for global security.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s recent visit to the US, where she discussed the future of the Iran nuclear deal with the new administration, is a welcome sign of Europe’s proactive stance on global challenges.
The EU should show similar determination to craft a standalone policy towards Asia which, despite America’s dominant presence and China’s growing clout, still looks to Europe for trade, investment, technology and security support.
America has been both a rival and a vital ally as Europe has expanded its ties with Asian countries. It’s time now for the EU to further enhance its own distinct trade, political and security profile in the region.
Brexit and the EU’s many other crisis and economic woes have tarnished some of Europe’s lustre. But here are three ways in which Europe and Asia can work together to ease some of the anxieties of the Trump era.
First, Europeans and Asians have a common interest in working together on issues such as climate change, preserving the Iran deal and safeguarding multilateral institutions, including the United Nations.
In addition to its soft power credentials in areas such as peace-building, preventive diplomacy and conflict management, the EU is also a valuable partner for Asia in areas such as maritime security (including anti-piracy operations), counter-terrorism and fighting cybercrime.
A more visible European security profile in Asia will have the added benefit of helping the EU’S long-standing desire to join the East Asia Summit, an annual forum of Asian countries that since 2011 has included the US and Russia.
Second, given America’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and its disinterest in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the EU should work harder to finally clinch pending free trade agreements with Japan, India and individual South-East Asian countries.
As EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström underlined recently, trade is essential for employment – with some 31 million European jobs dependent on exports – and a way to spread good values and standards.
Brussels should therefore get serious about negotiating a free trade pact with the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and speed up trade talks with Australia and New Zealand.
Importantly, the EU and Asians should join forces to inject new life into the World Trade Organization.
Third, the EU should make a serious effort to upgrade its bilateral relations with Asia’s key players and regional organisations.
Brussels has worked hard over the years to engage in a sustained manner with China, Japan, Korea, India and ASEAN. These links are significant and impressive but often get muddied by small irritants. They must be given more resilience, strategic substance and direction.
Europe should take a closer look at other regional initiatives in Asia such as trilateral cooperation efforts by Japan, China and Korea (whose relationships with the Trump administration will be the subject of a Friends of Europe debate on 22 February).
While disagreements over historical issues and North Korea have long strained relations between the three countries, Japanese, Chinese and Korean leaders have held several trilateral summits since 2008 and are currently reassessing ties to take account of the new US administration.
Another summit is being mooted while the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat in Seoul continues to work on its mandate to promote peace and common prosperity between the three countries.
In addition, in today’s uncertain and volatile world, ASEM (the Asia-Europe Meeting), which brings together more than 50 European and Asian countries, is needed more than ever to deepen connections and networks.
The EU’s Global Strategy calls for a deepening of economic diplomacy and an increased security role for the EU in Asia. That commitment should be translated urgently into action.
Europe’s history and experience make it imperative that it uses its influence to prevent the rise – both at home and abroad – of unwise nationalisms, destructive conflicts and confrontation.