America first’ has set traditional US partners on edge, and it’s in both regions’ interests to keep Washington engaged. Both, however, also need deeper bilateral ties, and to work towards a new, unprecedentedly large trade bloc.
In Brussels, Beijing and Bangkok, concerns over US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies dominate. But while stable ties with Washington are vital for both Europe and Asia, it’s time to inject more effort into Europe-Asia relations.
Policymakers, military strategists and business leaders in Asia and Europe need to work on two fronts. First, they must use their collective heft to try bringing the US back into the global conversation on trade and the climate. Second, they should take a serious look at enhancing region-to-region ties.
Trump makes no secret of his suspicion of multilateral deals and both China and Europe hope to avoid a new round of punitive US tariffs. Chinese policymakers know, however, that tensions in US-China relations stretch far beyond trade.
And while a halt to damaging tit-for-tat tariff wars is necessary, bilateral deals weaken an already fragile multilateral trading system and endanger global economic growth.
A US delegation led by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross attended last week’s East Asia Summit in Bangkok, but Trump’s decision to stay away from added to growing concerns about Washington’s long-term commitment to the region.
The cancellation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit which Trump planned to attend adds to Asian anxieties.
However, the region’s leaders are stepping up contacts and deepening their bilateral and regional conversations. Efforts to clinch the mammoth Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) represent one such example.
Valuable work has already been done on reinforcing Europe-Asia ties. Talks on an EU-China investment agreement and a trade deal with India continue to mark time but there are an expanded EU-Japan partnership and ongoing work on trade pacts with Australia and New Zealand as well as several ASEAN countries.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to India and French President Emmanuel Macron’s to China prove upgrading ties with Asia remain high on national agendas. Germany has joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, following in the footsteps of Britain and France.
Over 50 Asian and European foreign ministers will meet in Spain in mid-December to prepare for the annual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Cambodia next year. To really make the Madrid meeting matter, ministers should use it to break the logjam on two key irritants.
First, Asians should finally give the EU a permanent seat at the East Asia Summit. Keeping the EU outside this forum in a world of rapid geopolitical change and disruption makes little sense.
Second, ASEAN and the EU should sign up for a strategic partnership as soon as possible. The bilateral dispute over palm oil between the EU and Indonesia and Malaysia is important, but should not stand in the way of a formal upgrading of EU-ASEAN ties.
The EU should also bite the bullet and voiced interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Japan, which worked with other members of the CPTPP to see it come into force in December 2018, has its own economic agreement with the EU that could act as a bridge
An EU-CPTPP trade agreement would create a trade bloc of unprecedented size and send a strong message of commitment to free trade and multilateralism.
Asia-Europe Meeting ministers must use the Madrid meeting to prepare a Europe-Asia blueprint on WTO reform, dealing with difficult questions like developing country status, the role of state-owned enterprises, industrial subsidies and protection of intellectual property rights.
Preparations should also start ensuring that the ASEM Summit in Cambodia in 2020 takes serious steps to multilateralism global connectivity initiatives, including China’s Belt & Road Initiative. This should include the start of discussions on crafting a rules-based “connectivity code of conduct”.
Finally, following the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement, Europe and Asia have a common interest in reducing climate-warming emissions.
The long list of geopolitical challenges facing the incoming EU leadership requires smart moves to keep relations with the US on an even keel. It needs an equal effort to step up Europe-Asia engagement.