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A Partnership Among Unequals: EU-ASEAN Relations


In recent times, the EU-ASEAN relationship has received much attention from scholars. The EU is facing problems like Brexit, the Iranian nuclear issue, as well as the global impact from growing trade conflict between US and China. Similarly, the ASEAN region is also posed with its own challenges due to the influence of a rising China vis a vis its growing economic engagement with the European Union. These challenges, in one way or the other, affect the dynamics of EU-ASEAN relations. This article argues that the EU-ASEAN relations is a partnership among unequals and it reviews the recent public lecture by Professor Dr. Jorn Dosch held at the Asia Europe Institute on September 6, 2019.

The trajectory of EU-ASEAN Ties 

These two regions in the world are important to one another as they both represent large dynamic markets. In terms of population, the EU (28 countries) has 512.7 million and Southeast Asia (10 countries) is comprised of 642.1 million people (Blue Book, 2019:6). There is margin of more than one million population between the two regions. The EU is currently the second largest trading partner of ASEAN. In 2017, EU exported up to 138 billion Euro worth of its products to ASEAN whereas, ASEAN export to European countries was worth 91 billion Euro (Eurostat, 2017, cited in Blue Book 2019:24). EU has had the advantage of higher export value to ASEAN countries. 

Similarly, EU has also had high investment in the ASEAN region. EU investment in ASEAN amounts to 330 billion Euro and it considers ASEAN as its third-largest investment destination outside of its own region.  In contrast, ASEAN’s investment in EU is at 140 billion Euro (Ibid., p.24). Despite its population of 642.1 million, ASEAN is at the disadvantageous position in terms of trade and investment with the EU. Although the EU and ASEAN ties have continued to evolve, the difference in the trade and investment value reflects their unequal partnership. 

Beyond EU-ASEAN Traditional Narrative

At the recent public lecture hosted by the Asia-Europe Institute (AEI), University of Malaya and Centre for ASEAN Regionalism University of Malaya (CARUM) on September 6, 2019,  distinguished scholar Professor Dr. Jorn Dosch delivered a lecture titled “The EU in Southeast Asia: Looking Beyond the Standard Narrative”.  Professor Dosch is Chair of International Politics and Development Cooperation and Vice-Dean of Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences, University of Rostock, Germany. 

Professor Dr. Jorn Dosch covered several aspects of EU-ASEAN relations as well as the mechanism of interaction between the two regions. While discussing myths and realities of both the regions, he agrees that their relations are of a “special quality” in international relations and one of the advanced integration mechanism in the region. He also portrays their ties as “natural partners”. He asserted that the EU-ASEAN partnerships aim to strongly and vibrantly promote multilateralism, regionalism and rules-based international order. 

Professor Dosch also discussed how these relations have evolved and suggested a different mechanism to deal with challenges at the regional and global levels. He draws his work on social constructivism. This theorization primarily underscores the significance of the power of ideas and normative values. For instance, he pointed out that human rights, democracy, freedom, dignity, and rule of law are watchwords due to their normative values, which are reflected in the academic discourses in Europe. 

Additionally, Professor Dosch succinctly explains what their standard narrative is. He was of the view that both regions are vigorously engaged in multifaceted as well as open inter-regional exchanges, which deeply embodied in their normative values, discourses, and ideas. This shows how they deal with delicate and challenging issues, for instance, trade and investment, security, good governance, and human security, which in one way or the other, affects them in the region. Moreover, ASEAN states have the best example of unity in diversity, good governance, and regional integration from the European Union. 

Hence, he claims that “EU model is a reference point for ASEAN countries”. In that context, EU has been contributing in terms of promotion of democracy, rule of law, human rights and liberal values. Besides this standard narrative, he was surprised to know that in the 3rd ASEAN Reader (2015) there was no mention of ASEAN-EU relations in the eighty-four chapters. He also perceives that there is less focus on the EU’s role among ASEAN countries. This shows an uncertainty regarding EU “actorness” among ASEAN countries. 

The Promising EU’s Action Plan 

Professor Dosch then discussed the EU's Action Plan (2018-2022). This plan entails: enhancing strategic dialogue and deepening political and security cooperation, promoting an ASEAN-led security architecture, combating terrorism and non-traditional security issues, cooperating on human rights and good governance, promoting peace and security and disarmament, increasing trade and investment, strengthening public-private partnership, strengthening business, and enhancing cooperation on food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and science and technology. This well-orchestrated AP (Action Plan) looks to be ideal, relevant, and significant for regional development. It, therefore, depends on how ASEAN cooperates, coordinates, approaches and implements the EU's Action Plan. 

Professor Dosch shared various findings of his study that generally derive its roots from Social Constructivism. The construction of European integration is based on social constructivism in which ideas, identities, and values matter. Based on this theorization for strategic partnership between EU-ASEAN, he identified some impact on human rights discourses/improvements in EU and demonstrated that there is a big footprint of EU in ASEAN economic integration and trade. He showed that EU intends to act like a ‘Security Actor’ and wanted to apply its experience in ‘Preventive Diplomacy’ and ‘Maritime Security’ within the ASEAN region.  


Professor Dosch concluded that although the EU has soft power within the ASEAN region it is less visible in the security aspect. ASEAN perceives the EU as an economic actor but is disinterested in a growing role of the EU in its traditional security. There is more talk than implementation and cooperation between two regions. He observed that the EU-ASEAN is not a partnership of equals, rather, their relations are still driven by donor-recipient relations. He regrets that there is less commitment at the P2P (People to People) level between the two regions. The question is: how does EU sees its relations when we talk about small and big power relations? To me, the bigger the country, the bigger the investment and exports. Smaller countries are likely to import more and export less. They also have lesser access to market and investment. It is yet to be seen how the EU and ASEAN could iron out their differences and tackle challenges in this competitive and conflicting arena. 


Blue Book 2019 EU-ASEAN Cooperation, published by EU Mission to ASEAN, Indonesia, P.6. Retrieved on  24.10.2019, https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/eu-asean_blue_book_2019.pdf

“Eurostat 2017”, cited in Blue Book 2019 EU-ASEAN Cooperation, published by EU Mission to ASEAN, Indonesia, p.24. Retrieved on  24.10.2019 https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/eu-asean_blue_book_2019.pdf

Ibid., p.24 

Written by Pervaiz Ali Mahesar
PhD Candidate, Department of International and Strategic Studies,
FASS, University of Malaya, Malaysia.
University of Sindh Jamshoro, Pakistan

Last Updated: 23/10/2019