EU faces uphill task beefing up defence ties with Asia

The EU’s foreign and security policy chief, Josep Borrell, will not attend Asia’s premier defense summit this weekend after testing positive for COVID-19, leaving the bloc at a possible disadvantage as it tries to convince Indo-Pacific partners it is a genuine security actor in the region.

An EU spokesperson said that Borrell tested positive for the coronavirus last week. Brussels was waiting to see if he could present a negative test result but it was confirmed on Thursday night that he won’t be able to attend.

DW understands that the bloc will instead be represented by Gunnar Wiegand, the European External Action Service’s Asia-Pacific managing director. But this means that the EU won’t be represented at ministerial panels at the summit, nor likely to be able to make commitments to key partners in the region.

This could prove problematic for an EU eager to demonstrate it is a key security actor in the region and hasn’t been distracted by the war in Ukraine.

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What is on the agenda and who is attending?

The Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defense summit, is hosted annually in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank. It will take place between June 10-12.

Keynote speeches will be given by China’s minister of national defense, Wei Fenghe, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Kishida Fumio, Japan’s prime minister.

France, Germany and Britain are also expected to send high-profile delegations. France’s armed forces minister, Sebastien Lecornu, will be among those in attendance.

The EU was hoping to make its case as an important security actor in the region, and the gathering would have also provided Borrell with opportunities to meet privately on the sidelines with his US, Chinese and other Asian counterparts. On June 12, a plenary session will be held on “Common Challenges for Asia-Pacific and European Defense.”

EU strategy

At the summit, the EU will primarily want to reassure regional partners that it remains committed to security in the Indo-Pacific despite its attention and resources being “overwhelmed” by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said Heng Yee Kuang, from the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy.

Analysts don’t expect the EU’s representatives to linger too much on issues surrounding the Ukraine war, as many countries in the Indo-Pacific reckon the West is overly focused on that conflict and has lost interest in problems closer to home, such as mounting tensions between China and Taiwan.

The EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, published last September, was unequivocal that the bloc “intends to increase its engagement with the region.”

Maritime, cyber and counterterrorism are three particular European defense interests in the Indo-Pacific, said Nicola Leveringhaus, a specialist in East Asian security at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

A German frigate, Bayern, returned home in February after a seven-month deployment in the Indo-Pacific, where it conducted operations in support of freedom of navigation and joint exercises with the navies of Australia, Singapore, Japan and the US. France and the UK have also deployed naval vessels to the region in recent years.

The EU and Japan conducted a joint naval exercise off the coast of the Gulf of Aden and of the Arabian Sea last October. Both sides vowed to “further enhance our already close consultations on security and defense” at the EU-Japan summit last month.

“The security of the Indo-Pacific also matters greatly to the EU because of its respective relationships with China and the United States,” said Leveringhaus.

“Polarizing geopolitical US-China competition within the region complicates the security challenges there and the consequences for the EU and its member states,” she added.

Strained relations with China

The EU’s relationship with China has deteriorated considerably since 2020, with both sides trading sanctions on each other’s officials in 2021, and Brussels has suspended an agreed investment pact.

China’s Defense Minister Wei last visited Brussels in March 2021 and this weekend’s summit would have provided Borrell with an opportunity to discuss key issues, including Beijing’s intentions over Taiwan.

“We know we are not the United States or China, but we have an important part to play,” said an official at the German Foreign Ministry.

Aside from major security issues, the EU will want to discuss securing global free trade and making supply chains resilient with Asian partners at the summit. The EU will also hope to find greater cooperation on climate action by presenting it as “green growth” and securitizing supply chains, said policy expert Kuang.

Does the EU have any clout in Asia?

At the summit, the EU’s representative is expected to speak about ASEAN centrality, ongoing support for COVID-19 vaccination campaigns and cybersecurity with regional partners.

In 2019, Vietnam became the second Asian state, after South Korea, to sign a Framework Participation Agreement on security with the EU.

Last year, Singapore joined the EU’s Enhanced Security Cooperation In and With Asia (ESIWA), a security project sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office and the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. It also includes India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam.

2022 marks the 45th anniversary of bloc-to-bloc relations between the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Just 0.8% of Southeast Asian elites reckon the EU has the most political and strategic influence in the region, compared to 1.7% last year, according to the annual State of Southeast Asia surveys published by the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Only 16% said they had the strongest confidence in the EU to provide leadership to maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law, down from 32% last year.

The EU has a long way to go to convince regional partners that it is a genuine security actor in the region, especially amid rising tensions between the US and China. It waits to be seen how Borrell’s absence at this week’s premier defense summit impacts that message.

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