ASEAN-EU Relations: Global recovery through interregional cooperation

18 Feb 2021 – Written by Amal Anzari

The European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), both set up amidst the Cold War, have similar purposes: preventing conflicts between member states in their respective regions as well as safeguarding against external threats. In short, providing security between members and from the external world.

Climate change and infectious diseases are prime examples of security threats that do not respect borders. After all, the pandemic has proved that political boundaries are not a point of contestation for security threats that humanity as a collective face. Dialogue, cooperation, and collaborative working have become the mainstay between countries and regions to tackle these vulnerabilities, and the pandemic has stressed the significance of achieving global consensus on global issues.

While the health crisis has been managed by the ASEAN countries, there still looms the threat of an economic crisis. Along with rising unemployment, recession in the region was at 2.6% of GDP in 2020. The sectors most affected by the pandemic have been textiles, international tourism and automotive equipment sub-contracting. According to the World Bank, 11 million people are at risk of falling into poverty this year in the Southeast Asian region. The EU has mobilised over €800 million through the Team Europe initiative to help aid the ASEAN countries.

Evidently, the EU-ASEAN relationship will be important in combating both the pandemic and its economic-environmental fallout. It is likely to also affect security in both theatres. Below, I will detail the importance of continued relations on economic, energy and maritime security.

Economic Security

The EU has been the major source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in ASEAN since 1972 when the EU became ASEAN’s first formal dialogue partner. The European Union is ASEAN’s second-largest trading partner with bilateral trade in goods amounting to €237.3 billion in 2018. ASEAN is also the European Union’s third-largest trading partner, accounting for 14% of ASEAN trade.

Trade agendas between the two regions need to be further strengthened. While the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) between the EU, Singapore and Vietnam have entered into force, there still exists room for free trade agreements to be agreed upon between the EU and other ASEAN countries. According to the European Commission, the EU-Vietnam FTA is the most comprehensive FTA that the EU has signed with a developing nation. Forecasts suggest that by 2030, the EU-Vietnam FTA will increase Vietnamese exports to the European Union by approximately 44.37%. To this end, negotiations are currently on-going between the EU and Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

However, there is a significant need for digital as well as physical connectivity to integrate the two regions. There have been multiple examples of progress on this. Firstly, the EU-supported ASEAN Customs Transit System is an initiative that looks into simplifying the movement of goods across the region. In response to Covid-19, it is a means by which the movement of medical supplies and vaccines can be accelerated.

Secondly, the ASEAN-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement, when and if it comes into effect, will not only be the first bloc-to-bloc agreement aimed at enhancing air connectivity but will also create the world’s largest aviation market. This is a sure way of redoubling efforts and making steady progress in regional connectivity and recovery of the aviation industry.

Thirdly, the 2020 EU-ASEAN Business Sentiment Survey, conducted by the EU-ASEAN Business Council reported that 56% of EU firms intend to venture into Southeast Asia. This means that expediting trade negotiations and agreements between the two blocs in addition to boosting FTAs will lead to an increase in trade and cooperation.

Energy Security

The ASEAN-EU Plan of Action (2018-2020), to strengthen the partnership between the two blocs, states that promoting energy security is one of the focus points of cooperation between the EU and ASEAN. Both organisations have a common vision of long-term renewable energy cooperation. Sharing best practices and promoting energy dialogues will aid in achieving ASEAN’S target of securing 23% of its primary energy from renewable sources by 2025 and the EU’s renewable energy target of 32% by 2030.

ASEAN Green Finance Catalytic Facility is an initiative set up to help finance, directly and indirectly, green and sustainable infrastructure in Southeast Asia. Its funding includes €50 million from the EU which is a good step towards forging energy security cooperation.

Furthermore, the EU Mission to ASEAN recently announced that the EU will support 19 Southeast Asian research organisations with new research grants. The new grants will encourage and facilitate the sharing of research findings and ideas, as well as research staff, facilitate partnerships across business sectors, and promote innovative projects. Such an initiative will help promote projects that will boost both regions’ chances of safeguarding their energy security going forward.

Maritime Security

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ASEAN members have points of contestation when it comes to the territorial waters of the South China Sea. PRC has not only challenged the status of these territorial waters but has also increased its military presence in the region. This is important for Europe as around 40% of the EU’s foreign trade goes through the South China Sea. This means that any disruption in the region can not only affect the ASEAN member states but also the trade flows for the rest of the world as well. Enforcing International Law and the protection of Maritime Security should be one of the main pillars of support between the two regional groups.

A substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that goes by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) between the ASEAN countries and the larger neighbours in the region is a key solution that regional partners such as the EU must strive towards enforcing. Such an initiative would be a decisive step in solving the regional maritime security dilemma.

Inter-regional Security Cooperation

ASEAN has developed itself into a regional organisation that is highly prioritised by the international polity. Thus, furthering engagement between the EU and ASEAN and building a common understanding can lead to a significant change in how the global multilateral system functions.

ASEAN’s adoption of the Outlook on the Indo-Pacific Policy is based around four pillars: maritime security, connectivity, sustainable development, and economic cooperation. This Policy is a possible area that the EU can work alongside ASEAN. It would not only help the EU work on its Indo-Pacific Policy but is also a way to strengthen regional cooperation between the two entities. The German Government’s recently-published Indo-Pacific Guidelines can be taken as a positive sign for the future strengthening of European and Southeast Asian security cooperation.

Frequent dialogues and consultations, along with the embrace of differences and pursuit of projects with common agendas are ways for the two blocs to move forward. At the end of the day, the EU and ASEAN are amongst the world’s most successful regional organisations, both proving that open and rules-based multilateral systems are attainable. In light of increasing nationalism and a shift away from multilateralism in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, increased inter-regional cooperation between the EU and ASEAN is one way of changing the discussion on global recovery.

ASEAN and the EU share their common vision of a security discourse governed by international rules and based on international agreements. The two regional organisations share a similar set of security goals and objectives. A strategic landscape that is characterised by resource appropriation in light of the Covid-19 pandemic could open new grounds for EU–ASEAN security cooperation. Incorporating global security concerns and calling for collective action should be the new normal in the discourse on regional security in the wake of a global pandemic.

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Recommended citation:

Anzari, A. (2021) ASEAN-EU Relations: Global recovery through interregional cooperation, IDRN, 18 February. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].