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The EU Strategy for connecting Europe and Asia - opportunities and challenges for regional defence and security

On September 22nd 2018, the European Union (EU) officially announced the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy. This is an important part aimed at realizing the EU Global Strategy in the 21st century, creating a lot of opportunities for and posing many challenges to the regional defence and security.

The context of the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy

In 2018, the world witnessed major political changes in the international relations which greatly impacted on the EU. Since the end of the World War II, it is the first time the relations between America and European countries have faced the risk of being broken off due to President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy and his declaration of a trade war against America’s traditional allies in the EU. It should be noted that America withdrew from the Deal between the P5 +1 and Iran which was warmly welcomed by the EU, and many EU member states invested tens of billions of USD in Iran. Moreover, America withdrew from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, stopped negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, forced EU member states to cease buying Russia’s natural gas and purchase America’s liquefied natural gas (much more expensive than Russia’s natural gas), which made leaders of the EU member states find their own way to deal with this issue and avoid being dependent upon America.

Meanwhile, China is accelerating its “Belt and Road” Initiative in all regions of the world, including the Europe. According to Beijing, this initiative is similar to the U.S. Marshall Plan which helped European countries rebuild their economies after the end of World War II. Several American politicians believe that the “Belt and Road” Initiative and the “Made in China 2025” Plan would be the mainstay of a new world order replacing the existing US-led world order.

Federica Mogherini (left) speaking about the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy at a press conference (photo: AFP)

Moreover, in 2018, Asia emerged as the centrepiece of the geo-political competition between America and many other countries and China. In addition to America, many other major powers, such as Russia and India mapped out strategies towards Asia. Russia planned the Eurasian Partnership in a bid to connect the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the ASEAN, while lifting the partnership between this country and the ASEAN to “strategic partnership”. India changed its “Look East” Policy into “Act East” Policy in order to boost its economic, political and security cooperation with East Asian countries. Therefore, leaders of the EU proactively adjusted the strategy for the relationship with Asian countries on the basis of their Global Strategy in the 21st century and achieved significant results. According to Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, “Europe and Asia have never been so close. Our economies are interconnected; our cultures are interconnected; and our security is connected: we face the same challenges, we confront similar threats, and we share an interest in preserving peace in our regions and international cooperation on a global scale”. She also predicted that in the foreseeable future, the two sides would have more opportunities “to find common political solutions and to bring economic prosperity to citizens”. Thus, the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy is rated not only “sensible” geo-politically, but also timely and appropriate for the mainstream of the times, thereby bringing benefits to all countries of the two continents.

Main points of the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy

EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy was designed after President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker urged the EU to adopt a foreign policy appropriate to the Bloc’s economy in order to respond to US President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy and negative impacts made by China’s “Road and Belt”. This Strategy uses a principles-based approach. According to the Strategy, the EU acknowledges that Asia is a continent consisting of geopolitical regions with various particularities; countries on this continent have different political institutions, economic models and levels of economic development.

According to Maaike Okano-Heijmans, an EU-Asia relations expert at the Clingendael Institute (Netherlands), the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy was a "very important step" after continuous criticism of the EU that it had made too slow response to Chinese soft power plays. Okano-Heijmans said: "We cannot accuse them of not having a vision any more. The challenge is how to turn this into something that's really an alternative to some countries. Because that requires money and more money and more money," adding that "nobody can rival Chinese money". She believes that the EU will have to spend a lot of money on realizing this Strategy as China is “scattering” its money to build key traffic lines across the Eurasian continent. It is estimated that China has spent trillions of USD on its “Belt and Road”.

The EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy operates under 3 basic principles, namely sustainable connectivity, comprehensive connectivity, and international rules-based connectivity. It is aimed at: (1) establishing transport links by air, land or sea 70% of the trade goes by sea, over 25% is carried by air, while rail remains relatively marginal (therefore, the potential for growth in all sectors is substantial); (2) setting up energy connectivity to ensure energy security with new sources of energy, clean energy and renewable energy; (3) promoting the EU’s role and dominant economic influence in Asia while it is the region with the most rapid and dynamic economic development in the world, and there is a trend to change the 21st century into the Asian century; (4) contributing to creating an environment for the sustainable development on the Eurasian continent through the promoted cooperation and mutual understanding; (5) facilitating economic development of poor countries in Asia, contributing to eradicating hunger, reducing poverty, and achieving sustainable growth; (6) enabling a better governance of flows of goods, people, capital and services; (7) addressing the sizeable investment gaps through improved mobilization of resources, reinforced leveraging of EU’s financial resources and strengthened international partnerships.

To realize the Strategy, the EU formulated 7 main solutions as follows. (1) Strengthening cooperation with Asian countries. (2) Supporting sustainable connectivity in the development of policies and dialogue mechanisms. (3) Promoting the exchange of customs information. (4) Cooperation on achieving the legal mechanisms for the transport of goods by railway on the Eurasian continent. (5) Working on standards for ethical use of forward looking technologies. (6) Facilitating investment for Euro-Asian connectivity through the investment facilities and guarantees in line with international standards and level-playing field. (7) Promoting agreements on the decarbonization of transport in international fora, in particular in aviation and maritime sectors.

Opportunities and challenges for regional defence and security

The EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy brings a lot of opportunities and poses challenges to the region’s defence and security. The Strategy produces positive effects so that Asian countries would be able to keep pace with the scientific-technological and financial-economic criteria and meet the requirements set by the 4th industrial revolution which many European countries have been developing rapidly and sustainably. At the same time, it creates a favourable condition for Asian countries to receive dual-use technologies of the 4th industrial revolution in order to access the global value chain and apply those technologies to developing their defence industry. According to the Strategy, a number of the EU member states will increase their military presence to maintain the freedom of navigation in the East Sea and security and safety in this sea. Besides, the EU member states will support the settlement of disputes in the East Sea on the basis of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and oppose militarization in the East Sea and use of force in the settlement of disputes at sea.

Nevertheless, the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy will force Asian countries to pursue an independent, self-reliant foreign policy as the Asia is the centrepiece of the strategic competition between major powers, particularly between America, China, Russia, Japan and India. As a result, several countries in the region with their geopolitically sensitive position could be drawn into the competition between major powers. Besides, to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Strategy, Asian countries should devote efforts to formulating strategies for restructuring their economy and defence in order to avoid being lagged behind. This is a great challenge to the leadership in each country and will tremendously impact on enterprises and the people. It is worth noting that when the EU and Asian countries promote the digital economy and connect information technology facilities, Asian countries will have to face the risk of cyber attacks. Thus, those countries should build and implement their own Law on Cyber Security, which could be seen as a matter of utmost importance and urgency in the digital economy era.

Sr. Col. Le The Mau

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