Sun. Jul 14th, 2024
HRVP Borrell emphasized the need to engage more with a region where, in many ways, the future of the planet is being decided. Image: EEAS, 2023

Brussels, 9 June 2023

While we are facing a brutal war in Europe, the global competition between the US and China is being played out across the Indo-Pacific and especially in South East Asia. Earlier this week in Singapore, I discussed these growing tensions and how the EU can help promote stability and respect for agreed rules. We need to engage more with a region where, in many ways, the future of the planet is being decided.

There is a paradox when it comes to South East Asia. In economic terms, the region is full of dynamism, growth, technological innovation and optimism. A country like Singapore had a nominal GDP of around $1,000 per capita when it became independent in 1966. This figure has since then multiplied to $72,000 (the EU average is $46,000). However, in security terms, the region is marked by growing tensions, arms races, military incidents and attempts at coercion. The rhetoric is getting shrill and the mood more pessimistic.

This was on full display during this year’s Shangri La Dialogue, the most important security conference in Asia taking place in Singapore. Every year an impressive array of Prime Ministers, Defence Ministers and various security experts discuss the outlook for Asian and global security.

Even more than previous years, the focus this time was on US-China tensions. The stage was set by China’s refusal, already before the conference started, for its Defence Minister Li to meet with US Defence Secretary Austin. And even though the two shook hands at the opening dinner, throughout the rest of the conference the growing strategic competition was evident. Indeed, the speeches of Secretary Austin and General Li laid out radically different visions for the region.

When it comes to Europe, despite the regular presence of European Defence Ministers at the SLD for many years, we are largely seen as an extra-regional actor with limited impact on the regional security dynamics. And the war against Ukraine has reinforced the feeling that Europe is turning inward, limiting its global engagement despite our messages asserting the opposite.

I wanted to reaffirm the reasons for our regional commitment and set out our contribution. So in my speech I stressed that Europe and Asia have a direct stake in each other’s security. We need to defend core security principles whenever and wherever they are threatened, from Ukraine to the South and East China Seas and beyond. The EU is committed to enhance its security cooperation in and with Asian partners. In fact, many Europeans expressed this message at the SLD – and it is acted upon. The security component of our cooperation with ASEAN is expanding rapidly. Our member states navies are engaged with naval exercises and we are ready to do more. But we need to make sure our cooperation is as operational as possible and a two-way street.

I also explained how the war against Ukraine is changing Europe. We are offering important help to Ukraine in terms of military supplies and training but we are also beefing up our defence capabilities across the board. This strategic transformation of the EU also makes us a more capable partner for Asia.

As always for this type of conference, the bilaterals and conversations in the corridors were as important as the proceedings in the plenary ballroom. I had a chance to meet Acting PM of Singapore Lawrence WongDefence Minister Ng Eng Hang and the country’s Foreign Minister, my good friend Vivian Balakrishnan. I also had official meetings with the Defence Ministers of China and South Korea, as well as many informal conversations with regional leaders and experts.

It is not easy to summarise the main conclusions from these discussions over several days. But I would like to stress three main reflections:

  1. US-China strategic competition is the main force driving regional dynamics and it affects all areas: economics, security, technology and ideology. The strategy of many regional states of developing deep economic ties with China while seeking security from the US, is getting harder to sustain. Logically, many in the region want to avoid having ‘to pick a side’ and instead emphasise the need to promote respect for rules and norms, multilateral agreements and regional integration (hence, ASEAN centrality). When the big powers are throwing their weight around, many see the EU as a factor of balance in the region and a strong supporter of multilateralism. We need to seize on that demand for ‘more EU’.
  2. There is a strategic continuum and in a global world there is no ‘far away’. The war against Ukraine affects everyone. Similarly, Europeans need to act when coercion and unilateral moves endanger stability in the Taiwan Strait or the South and East China Seas. What this means in concrete terms will depend on the circumstances and on the capabilities we have available. But we cannot be parochial or provincial. And just as Asian partners rightly ask us to do more on security in the region, to ‘not leave them alone’, we are right to stress that Ukraine deserves global solidarity and support because of the underlying principles at stake. If sovereignty is no longer respected and the use of force and coercion is normalised, we are all in danger, also countries that are geographically far away from Ukraine.
  3. Looking beyond ‘hard security’, there is a clear trend, also in Asia, towards a new geo-economic paradigm, where open markets and ‘just in time’ supply chains are giving way to security and state-driven, ‘just in case’ approaches. The buzzwords are resilience, diversification and, above all, de-risking. In different ways, China, the US and the EU are all advancing in this direction. But many regional partners ask what this means in concrete terms. What are the risks of de-risking? And where does de-risking end and de-coupling begin? Will the EU, they ask, become more protectionist and turn its back on the WTO? It is normal for a region that has done so well out of entering into the global economy to ask these questions. It is a reminder that, as we in the EU are gearing up for a new ‘economic security strategy’ to be released later this month, we must take into account the impact our choices have on our partners. And we need to get the balance right between protecting ourselves from growing risks stemming from the weaponisation of inter-dependence and, on the other hand, preserving the immense benefits that rules-based trade and investment have brought to the EU and our partners.

Overall, I came away convinced that despite the war on our doorstep and many pressing priorities at home, we need to pay more attention to the strategic shifts in the Indo-Pacific and especially South East Asia. It really matters whether the region stays open, plural and rules-based, or descends into ever-stronger great power competition, competing blocs and binary choices.

Source – EEAS


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