Asia is no priority on the European agenda, and somehow, this is understandable. Europe has been experiencing hard times in the last years: a financial crisis, followed by the sovereign debt crisis, the Greek crisis, and two economic crises, all in less than ten years. Its neighbourhood is on fire, and although the Arab Spring has given impulse to democratisation in Tunisia, it has led to much instability elsewhere – with the civil war in Syria and the rise of Da’esh as the apex of unrest. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has once more shown its fists, as it has de facto annexed parts of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. OK, these are not easy times, and it is good that lots of attention is devoted to resolving the most urgent problems in the EU and its neighbourhood.
Asia has however changed immensely over the last decade, and it is therefore a great pity that Europe has had other things to focus on rather than Asia’s growth. China has obviously made great leaps forward, but the development of Asia is larger than China’s progress alone. India has a new, assertive government that will have the honour and burden of further developing a country which will soon be the most populous in the world. Myanmar is rapidly democratizing, and Southeast Asia is interestingly integrating with an institution – ASEAN – that clearly takes the EU as its prime example. Asian countries are moving up the value chain, with much production moving from China to the Indochinese peninsula. A latent conflict in the South China Sea is keeping diplomacies from all over the world busy. The United States are discussing a Trans Pacific Partnership agreement with many Asian partners, but not with China. And China is setting up an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, without the US, which is set to finance Chinese infrastructural investment in Asia and all the way till Europe. Yes, Asia has been changing a lot when Europe was looking away.
No need to despair, but great need to finally take some more decisive action and to come up with a European agenda on Asia. Inside Europe, it is necessary that our companies, universities and people get ready to face the competition from Asia while grasping the enormous opportunities deriving from its growing economy and rising investments in often complementary sectors. Asian companies investing in Europe acknowledge but respect our advanced environmental and labour laws. We should be proud and hold on to them. But at the same time, they complain about Europe’s many bureaucratic caveats, about the still remaining trade barriers within the EU and about enduring intercultural incomprehension. While we need to protect our local industries, we must not dissuade our Asian counterparts from investing in Europe because of an inefficient bureaucracy and inaptness to welcome them properly . We must not be shy to take advantage of China’s ‘One-Belt-One-Road’ initiative and we must set up enterprising trade facilitation offices in loco.
And at the same time we need to have a coherent and proactive strategy for Asia itself. We must play as a block, especially with the big players such as China, India, Japan and Korea, but not shy away from engaging with other partners in the region such as Taiwan and ASEAN too. We must use our strength as the world’s biggest trading block in shaping alliances and signing sustainable trade agreements, team up with Asian partners on global issues where we might diverge on from our American friends such as environmental policy in preparation of the UNFCCC COP 21 Conference in Paris at the end of 2015, and use Europe’s soft power image to help solving off the radar regional conflicts through civilian missions and its diplomatic corps.
The hours and days European leaders have spent discussing on yet another plan for Greece, on last minute solutions to the migration crises following the instability in the Mediterranean, or on political and economic blockages for Russia, by far outnumber the time spent discussing trade agreements and disputes with China and other Asian partners, engaging with new strategic actors in the region, developing a coherent Indian and Pacific strategy for the EU and its member states. The tide should change, now. Because strengthening our relationship with Asia will improve Europe’s geopolitical power and its economy. And because Asia is coming here anyway; better be prepared and use it in our advantage rather than passively wait to be swept away.
Graduate of Democracy 2015
The views expressed are personal and do not represent the institutions the author is connected with.