11 July 2024

During Wednesday’s press conference, at the end of a historic ASEAN-EU summit, Samdech Decho Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia, stated unequivocally that the EU should treat all ASEAN members as equal partners, without any discrimination and without political matters as preconditions. Hun Sen also said that ASEAN and the EU should go for a bloc-to-bloc free trade agreement. To date, the EU has concluded free trade agreements with Singapore and Vietnam.

It is an open secret that the history of ASEAN-EU relations have resembled a roller-coaster ride, depending on the attitude of certain EU members on specific issues at the time, such as human rights and agricultural standards, to mention just a few. In fact, had the EU shown unanimity and common sense towards the bloc, the EU could have joined the ranks of other leading dialogue partners such as China, Australia, the US and India as comprehensive strategic partners.

Ahead of the summit, senior officials were pressuring their ASEAN counterparts to show stronger positions on the war in Ukraine, in line with the EU, and on other regional issues,including the Myanmar quagmire, the situation in the South China Sea, the Taiwan debacle and the Korean Peninsula. The EU knew full well, before the summit took place, ASEAN’s positions on all regional and international issues raised by the EU, which were well documented. So, there was no need to open Pandora’s Box.

The 16-page ASEAN-EU Joined Leaders’ Statement is a comprehensive one. It addresses the whole gamut of ASEAN’s programs and activities with the EU, its oldest dialogue partner. The fact that both sides could hold this summit is a manifestation of their determination and goodwill to raise their relations to the next level.

Granted the current unpredictability and fluidity of the geopolitical landscape, closer security and strategic cooperation are pivotal to ensuring the stability and prosperity of the region. The EU agreed to synergise its Indo-Pacific Strategy with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which is inclusive in nature, without targeting any third party. In response to a reporter’s question at the press conference, as to whether ASEAN would like to use the EU to counter the growing rivalries of the US and China, Philippine’s president Bong Bong Marcos said that the best scenario would be the improvement of ties between the two superpowers, without the involvement of others.

He reaffirmed the Philippine’s long-held diplomatic mantra,that Asia-Pacific problems must be solved by Asia-Pacific countries. Currently, the Philippines is the coordinating country for ASEAN-EU relations. Finally, what matters most for ASEAN and the EU is trade and investment, which can help improve the standard of living of people in the region,especially following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lest we forget, the 671-million population of the ASEANcommunity is bigger than the EU’s 447-million. In the next ten years, it could, collectively, be the world’s third largest economy. Now that their leaders have met as a bloc, the EU could do more with directives from the top and implement the 5-year strategic action plans without delay.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn