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Changing Asia

Changing Asia and the EU

By Fraser Cameron

28 October 2019

Changing Asia – EU Struggling for influence


The following reflects talks with a wide range of stakeholders in several Asian countries (Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, Thailand) over the past month. 


The dominant issue everywhere is the rise of China and its implications for the region as well as each individual country. A related concern is the unpredictability of the Trump administration – his outspoken attacks on the alliances with Japan/Korea, his admiration and friendships with Xi and Kim – and US goals via-a-vis China. 


Regrettably the EU is way down the list of priorities and apart from a few officials and academics is not viewed as a significant player. Brexit has had a huge and negative impact on how stakeholders view the EU. It was been a lose-lose-lose outcome said a senior official in Tokyo; “the EU loses a major country, the UK loses influence, and we lose a solid base for our companies to work within the single market.” 


The decline of Merkel, the reluctance of Germany to play a major global role, the mercurial nature of Macron, the perennial instability in Italy and Spain, the failure to deal with the migration issue, its absence in the Middle East, the poor economic growth record, the problems surrounding the new Commission, were all mentioned by different interlocutors. 


The EU’s support for an international rules-based system is welcomed but not at the expense of upsetting relations with the US. One Japanese official remarked that of course Tokyo supported the EU’s normative agenda – in principle. He and others were still waiting for Berlin to send a promised frigate to the SCS.  Although many Asians say they agree with the EU’s integrated security concept, the reality is that Hobbes rules supreme in Asia.


What this means is that the multilateral system is under threat across Asia and each country is now considering in private if not in public how they should reach an accommodation with China in the event that the US withdraws or significantly reduces its footprint from the region. Japan is rolling out the red carpet for Xi next spring; Korea has openly acknowledged that it will not cross China again (lesson from Thaad deployment); Singapore signing defence agreement with China.


This means that the EU is fighting an uphill battle to remain relevant and to pursue its aim of preserving and strengthening the international rules-based system.


In China there is some recognition that the rapidity of its rise was not followed by a reflective discussion on how best to use its power and how its power would be perceived by others. But we are where we are said one professor – and Xi cannot retreat without losing face. The same source said that Xi and his top team are obsessed with two priorities; cementing the power of the CCP; and relations with the US. There is thus little bandwith left for other countries/issues although Beijing argues that Xi and Li have put quite some effort into relations with Europe.