Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

EU policy from the Urals to the Pacific

European Voice - August 31st 2006

Asia’s disparate nations and cultures make it hard to formulate multilateral policies but the EU must engage

THE first key question on EU-Asia relations is where does today’s EU definition of Asia begin and end? Arguably Asia’s countries are all so different that there can be no common EU strategy. Asia Minor in eastern Turkey is the traditional European border with Asia and the current role of Turkey is important, with its strong links with the Turkic countries of Central Asia ranging from strategically important Kazakhstan with vast energy resources to impoverished Kyrgyzstan bordering China. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are treated by the EU as semi-pariahs because of their human rights problems but the latter cannot be ignored because of its huge gas reserves. Russia has a vast far-eastern presence posing long-term problems in terms of depopulation but the EU has no dedicated Siberian policy, focusing instead on Russia’s European dimension through the four ‘common spaces’.

Recently I argued for Kazakhstan, to be included in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) rather than just the standard partnership and co-operation agreement for the CIS countries. Its ethnic cousin Azerbaijan is already part of the ENP along with Georgia and Armenia. To its south and south-east the USA and the EU have now redefined this region of the world, which includes the Mashraq countries, the Saudi peninsula, Iran and traditionally Asiatic Afghanistan, as the ‘wider Middle East’. When coupled to the North African Barcelona EuroMed Arab bloc it makes strategic sense for the EU to have a common approach. This policy was adopted at the European Council in Thessalonica in June 2003.

Further east is the first clearly recognisable Asian bloc, coming together under the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), and consisting of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and two key observers – China and Japan. SAARC seeks to encourage mutual assistance in various fields and would be the ideal body for the EU to interact with at a multilateral level but so far EU relations with the regional superpower India are primarily enshrined in a bilateral strategic partnership, as SAARC is still poorly developed. Many observers would see India with its English common law traditions, democracy and high standards of human rights as the ideal Asian partner for the EU, as opposed to China which although ranking as the EU’s second trading partner remains a one-party dictatorship with poor human rights. Nevertheless China’s phenomenal economic growth and market size cannot be ignored both as a competitive challenge but also a huge trading opportunity for the EU.

Further south-east is the oldest regional bloc founded in 1967, ASEAN, whose aim is to foster co-operation and mutual assistance among its ten diverse member countries. It is a strong organisation and operates in different ad hoc bolt-on formats eg, its India-ASEAN summits and ASEAN plus three (China, Japan and South Korea) and over the years has attracted partner countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, North Korea, the US, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, as well as the EU, all committed to supporting or being part of a massive 2 billion people-strong free-trade area by 2010 based on an EU-type model by promoting an ‘Asian arc of prosperity’. This is also a key way to bind Sino-Indian relations, traditional rivals as the economic giants of Asia.

Partly to match ASEAN integration, the EU set up in 1996 its own annual Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) summits. Curiously the regional ‘anglosphere’ countries, India, Australia and New Zealand are excluded. The ASEM summits have the stated objective of improving ties between the EU and Asia. Unlike EU multilateral relations with Latin America, or North America, regions which share common European cultural values and language, relations with far more diverse Asia are inevitably more fragmented and bilateral, but this vast region is showing increasing signs of regional integration which the EU must accompany.