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Looking for new forms of cooperation: EU-ASEAN relations

This article aims to analyse relations between the EEC/EU and ASEAN during the 1980s and 1990s. These are examined from a bilateral point of a view and in the larger context of the relations that the European Community developed with Asian countries. While the Cooperation Agreement with ASEAN was only signed in 1980 relations started in the 1970s after the enlargement of the EEC to include the United Kingdom. The article examines the reasons leading to the signature of the Cooperation Agreement, how the relationship between the two regional organizations evolved in the 1980s and 1990s and what impact the Cold War and globalization had on the evolution of this relationship. The article ends analysing the first summits of the Asia-Europe Meeting, ASEM, an initiative proposed by Singapore and strongly supported by ASEAN and European countries.

1. Introduction

This article aims to analyse relations between the European Economic Community (EEC), now European Union (EU) and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) during the 1980s and 1990s. These relations are analysed from a bilateral point of a view and in the larger context of the relations that the European Community developed with Asian countries. After rapidly examining the birth of regionalism in Asia and the first contacts between ASEAN and the EEC, we will see the reasons leading to the signature of the 1980 Cooperation Treaty and its implementation in the 1980s. The end of the Cold War brought about many important changes in Europe and Asia which influenced relations between ASEAN and the European Community. We will see therefore how the two organisations adjusted to the new international context and how the proposal leading to the new Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) was developed. Based on French and European sources, we will try to identify the elements explaining the evolution, limits and outcomes of this relationship.

2. The Cold War and the birth of regionalism in Asia

After the end of World War II, Southeast Asian countries gradually gained independence. But, as a consequence of international developments (the birth of Communist China, the Indochinese war, the division of the Korean peninsula and the Korean war), the region was strongly marked by East-West tensions. The birth of regionalism in South-East Asia was itself inspired by Cold War logic: in 1954, the US promoted the creation of the South-East Asia Treaty Organization – SEATO (along with France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan). However, SEATO ceased to have any meaning when the US was defeated in Vietnam and was dissolved in 1977.

When ASEAN was founded, in 1967, the aim to oppose the expansion of communism and limit the military influence of external actors to the regions was one of the main reasons leading Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines to reinforce cooperation.[1] Equally important was the need to limit tensions and competition among member states (a grouping of non-communist states) and to promote socio-economic development (so as to limit the appeal of the communist parties).[2] In 1984, Brunei, after independence, became the sixth member of ASEAN. During most of its first decade, ASEAN barely survived the tensions between member states. However, uncertainty surrounding the international situation in Asia (retreat of the US forces from Vietnam, Chinese, Russian and Vietnamese ambitions in the region) drove the ASEAN member states to stand together. In 1978, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the Chinese attack against Vietnam further complicated the regional equilibrium. Thailand was at the frontline of the conflict and China regularly sent aid to the Khmer Rouge through its territory. Thailand wanted the support of its ASEAN allies in the conflict with Vietnam. Despite significant differences among its member states, «ASEAN was at the forefront of international opposition to the Vietnamese invasion.»[3]

3. The beginning of EEC-ASEAN contacts

Notwithstanding their significance, Cold War questions and regional conflicts were not the only reasons behind ASEAN. The latter was indeed a grouping of developing countries (albeit with important differences among its member states), experiencing significant economic growth at the end of the 1970s. Against this background, reinforcement of links with European countries was useful for reducing ASEAN market-dependency on the US and Japan. Initial contacts between the EEC and South-East Asian countries took place at the time of the first enlargement of the EEC. British adhesion to the EEC alarmed these countries, now afraid of seeing their exports decrease. However, unlike India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan which concluded bilateral agreements with the EEC, ASEAN countries intended to develop their relations with the EEC as a regional group. A Joint Committee was created in 1975 in Brussels, bringing together ASEAN ambassadors and the Commission.

In 1977, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German Foreign Affairs Minister, proposed to reinforce links with South-East Asian countries. West-Germany, together with Great Britain and the Netherlands, was among the main European investors in South-East Asia. Bonn was probably worried about the poor level of commercial exchanges between the EEC and ASEAN. South-Eastern Asian countries represented only 2.3% of EEC trade (less than Latin America, 5.3%, or the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP), 6.9%). The same held true for investments, with Japan in first place (representing 32% of foreign investment in the area) followed by the US (16%) and EEC countries (14%). To improve its position in Asia, the EEC organized a conference on industrialization in Brussels in 1976, in Jakarta in 1979 and again in 1983 in Kuala Lumpur.

From 1976, the EEC started to allocate development funds (mainly grants) to Asia and Latin-America. At first consisting of only 20 million ECU for the two regions, they were gradually augmented. The priority was to develop the agricultural sector of the poorest countries and reinforce regional organizations. In Asia, ASEAN was the main organization concerned. The EEC also insisted, bilaterally and in international organizations, on an adhesion of the Asian countries to GATT and on the approval, on their part, of guarantees for foreign investments. Meanwhile, the Asian countries benefited greatly from the EEC Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). The EEC extended the scheme to new products and introduced modifications concerning the rules of origin to encourage intra-ASEAN cooperation. As a result, in just a few years, ASEAN countries were among the countries which benefited most from the GSP.

The idea that it was necessary to increase relations with an area of the world which was of strategic importance for raw materials and economic growth gained currency inside the EEC at the end of the 1970s. Following the proposal of Genscher, a Conference was organized in Brussels on 20-21 November 1978 with ASEAN representatives. The meeting concluded with the adoption of a Joint Declaration in favour of political dialogue and economic cooperation.[4] The following year, the Commission established a delegation in Bangkok, and in March 1980, the EEC and ASEAN signed a Non-Preferential Cooperation Agreement. Both sides granted each other the benefit of the GATT most-favoured nation clause. The European and Asian member states committed themselves to «undertake to promote the development and diversification of their reciprocal commercial exchanges to the highest possible level taking into account their respective economic situations.»[5] In the field of economic cooperation, particular attention was paid to the promotion of the industrial and mining sector in the ASEAN regions, and to the export of raw materials from the Asian countries. The third part of the agreement concerned development aid: the main sectors were food production, rural development, education and training. Part of the aid was allotted to the reinforcement of regional cooperation inside ASEAN. The agreement also established a Joint Cooperation Committee which was to meet once a year to discuss matters of common interest.

It is interesting to observe how ASEAN was not an isolated case in Asia: during the 1980s, the EEC reinforced links with other key countries. In 1981, the European organization signed a Non-Preferential Agreement with India, followed in 1983 by the opening of a delegation in New Delhi responsible for South-Asia. In 1985, an agreement was signed with Pakistan and the same year a new cooperation agreement with China replaced the EEC-China Trade Agreement signed in 1978. Development funds for Asian and Latin America (ALA) countries grew steadily from 20 million ECU in 1976 to 200 million in 1982.[6] Asian countries received 70-75% of this sum due to their demographic importance and level of (under-) development. EEC development aid consisted of a limited system of guarantees of export incomes, and food aid (especially to China and India), and aimed at promoting agriculture to assure food self-sufficiency, and regional integration.

4. Limits and achievements of EEC-ASEAN cooperation in the 1980s

In spite of these efforts, during the 1980s, relations between ASEAN and EEC countries were often cause of frustration for both parts: the ASEAN countries sought a more significant engagement on the part of the Europeans and the right to be consulted before the EEC took any decision which might affect them. In particular, ASEAN countries asked to be consulted before any reforms of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) and the Common Commercial Policy took place. Their requests were refused by the EEC countries on the grounds that they concerned a matter of internal competence. European countries recognized the economic (and political) role of the ASEAN countries but could not or did not want to do more. In this context, EEC-ASEAN cooperation could only improve marginally.

In 1982, the Community and five ASEAN countries – members of the Multifibre Arrangement – negotiated bilateral agreements covering the period 1983-1986: in exchange for wider access to the Common Market, the ASEAN countries accepted to limit the growth of their exports to 6% for some sensitive products. However, this solution was regularly criticized by ASEAN countries which asked for total liberalization of trade. These countries also asked to access European Investment Bank (EIB) funds. They estimated that EIB action was the best way to reinforce the European position in their area. Their demand provoked much negative reaction among EEC member states. The EIB operated only in EEC countries and, because of a derogation in the ACP and Mediterranean states, European member states feared that widening EIB operations would put the financial capacity of the Bank at risk.[7] A last minute compromise was found before a ministerial meeting in Dublin (15-16 November 1984): the EEC and ASEAN agreed that «it was in their mutual interest to study seriously the appropriate means of extending cooperation in the financial sector, including the possibility of closer regional banking and business contacts and of drawing upon the experience of the European Investment Bank.»[8] The compromise permitted to mention the EIB without engaging the Bank in the region. Nevertheless, the EEC committed itself to reviewing cooperation with ASEAN countries as well as the means to develop its presence and investments in the region.

Consistently, ASEAN countries proposed a meeting of the Ministers of Finance to reinforce European financial presence in their area. Initially, European countries were extremely reluctant as they did not want a new forum where the ASEAN countries could exert more pressure on them. However, confronted with the risk of seeing ASEAN countries neglect Euro-Asian cooperation in favour of an Asian-Pacific partnership, the EEC accepted to hold the meeting specifying that it was just an extraordinary reunion. Therefore, in Dublin, it was agreed that the member states would organize a special meeting among their Ministers to be held on economic matters as soon as possible to review the first period of cooperation and to adapt the agreement to the next five years. Lastly, also EEC aids to the region needed to be reconsidered: the ASEAN region received 20% more than the aid for ALA countries. But this aid, focused on the rural sector, did not meet their needs and ambitions anymore, which now concerned the industrial sector. ASEAN countries wanted more transfers of technologies and actions in the field of education and training.

The EEC regularly pointed out the benefits of the GSP to ASEAN critics. Asian countries recognized the importance of the GSP in promoting their exports but feared that the Community’s reform proposal would benefit the least competitive countries. They also asked to create a Joint Committee for the management of the GSP,[9] a request refused by the Europeans. In their discussions with the EEC, ASEAN Ministers often compared the Japanese or American presence to the European one, pointing out the limits of the latter.[10] The Commission representative answered that, in spite of a problematic economic situation, the Community had kept its markets opened in sensitive sectors such as textiles; it had not reduced its imports from Asian countries and it had implemented tax reductions agreed in the Tokyo Round in advance, to the benefit of the developing countries.[11] However, in 1985, the EEC was still only the third supplier and customer of ASEAN. While the volume of exchanges had increased in that last decade, the increase had become less significant in the last years. The situation was similar in the investment sector, with the EEC holding 3rd position (19%) behind the US (21%) and Japan (27%). At the same time, European aid was reduced (passing from $431 million in 1982 to $345m in 1984) while Japanese and American aid rose, and Canada and Australia were investing more funds in the region.[12]

Claude Cheysson, the French Commissioner in charge of external relations of the Community (and responsible for ALA countries), in summing up a meeting with ASEAN, observed that in spite of the absence of any important commercial dispute and the openness of the European market in comparison to the Japanese or the American markets, the EEC was losing position in favour of Tokyo and Washington. It was necessary to find new forms of cooperation which would have to include private European firms: investments had to be stimulated, along with technology transfers, and executive training programs and student exchange programs financed. The development funds were to become only a limited aspect of the cooperation. In particular, it was vital to focus more on the strengthening of partnerships between private operators than on financing infrastructures.[13] Consistently with these ideas, the EEC Council discussed new proposals in the fields of human resources and science and technology. An ASEAN-EEC High Level Working party on Investment was created after the meeting of the Economic Ministers in Bangkok on 17-18 October 1985 with the task «to examine investment conditions in the two regions, to identify any difficulties hampering the investment flow from EEC countries into ASEAN, to study ways and means of facilitating European investment in the ASEAN countries and to formulate recommendation on steps/actions to be taken.»[14] The report presented by the Working Group some months later insisted on the benefits for ASEAN countries to realize a common market so as to attract European firms. It also suggested strengthening coordination of the European Chambers of Commerce, Development Banks and the creation of a joint (EEC-ASEAN) data-bank in investment.

Following the EEC-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting of October 1986, the two organisations agreed to set up Joint Investment Committees in each of the ASEAN capitals. These committees, composed of public and private sector representatives from both sides, were to make a number of recommendations to promote European investments. The Commission also appointed a senior Investment Consultant to favour contacts between the Joint Committees and European Chambers of Commerce.

Despite these initiatives, cooperation remained severely limited. The European position continued to deteriorate in favour of Japan and the US. The most important commercial questions were dealt with in multilateral fora (such as GATT) or bilaterally (see, for instance, the agreements to be signed under the Multifibre Agreement). The EEC had always projected a protectionist image and ASEAN countries criticized CAP, adopting however a more moderate position than the Latin-American countries during the Uruguay Round negotiations.[15] The Commission’s proposal to adopt a new tax on seed oil did not improve the situation: ASEAN countries reacted strongly against this idea, underlining the damage it would cause to their exports.

As far as foreign (European) investments were concerned, there were many differences among the EEC member states: the only significant investors in the region were the United Kingdom, West Germany and the Netherlands. Nevertheless, if considered globally, European direct investment in South-East Asia was only a small part of their foreign investments. European investments were focused on one or two countries: in Malaysia and Singapore for the British funds, in Singapore for the German and French funds, and were far behind Japanese or even American funds. In the opinion of the French Foreign Ministry, there were many reasons for this situation: the strong fractioning and variety of the ASEAN market, where every country retained national regulations, discouraged foreign investments. The most important problem for Europeans was, however, infringement of intellectual property (IP) rights. The Joint Committees were contributing to identify the most interesting projects for European firms,[16] but the situation remained complicated. A member of the European Commission spoke of an «affaiblissement du prestige de la Communauté [qui] nécessite d’un redressement.»[17] Reacting to this situation, in 1987 the German and British delegates recommended abandoning the proposed EEC tax on seed oil, strongly contested by ASEAN countries, to develop more concrete projects of cooperation (and to organise less reunions and meetings), to strengthen the ASEAN secretariat, and relaunch cooperation in the field of human resources.

From the European point of view, the assessment of the situation was clear: European countries recognized the interest to strengthen their links with ASEAN countries, whose growth was extremely important. The EEC was ready to discuss reform of the 1980 Cooperation Agreement but required better access to ASEAN countries. However, the international situation did not favour Euro-ASEAN relations. In the second half of the 1980s, the priority of the EEC and its member states was the realization of the single market, and the rapid evolution of the final years of the Cold War contributed to maintaining Europe at the centre of the attention of the EEC member states.

In this situation, the implementation of the Single European Act (1 July 1987) caused some concern among ASEAN Members, who feared a negative impact on market access for their products to the EC. The reassurances given by the EC were welcomed but they needed to be confirmed by concrete actions. Probably as a way to address these concerns, during the Ministerial Meeting organized in Dusseldorf in May 1988, the Community presented a list of 128 sectors where joint ventures were possible and announced that 70 projects were actually under examination. In general, the debates were oriented towards the definition of new areas of cooperation more than on examination of commercial disputes.[18]

At the end of the 1980s, new areas of cooperation were launched in the industrial, scientific, and management fields. A data bank on training opportunities in the EC was created from a network of national data collection centres, including courses in informatics, engineering and managements fields open to ASEAN graduates and professionals.[19] In the field of business management, the programmes financed by the Community focused on the promotion of mutual knowledge and understanding and on training. As far as scientific and technological cooperation was concerned the activities aimed to strengthen links among national industrial research institutions and promote joint scientific research projects in the areas of environment/pollution control, biotechnology and health care. A special funding was established for the «Science and Technology for Development» program, focusing on tropical medicine and tropical agriculture. Energy was another new area of cooperation with the creation of the ASEAN-EC Energy Management Training and Research Centre in Jakarta, and new funds were established to support ASEAN member countries in energy planning. Finally, a new financial instrument was created: the «EC-International Investment Partners facility» to favour the constitution of joint ventures for operating in Latin-America, Mediterranean and Asian regions. But the funds allocated, 14.5 million ECU for three years (1988-1990), were too small to permit a radical transformation of the European financial presence in Asia.[20]

During a trade experts’ meeting, held in Brussels in November 1988, the Commission representative reasserted the interest of European countries in exporting and investing more in the region, but to this end it was crucially important to open markets and improve the protection of IP rights. For their part, ASEAN representatives recalled the measures already taken for the protection of IP rights, expressed their concern for the increasing number of anti-dumping investigations which could affect ASEAN exports, and asked for improvements in GSP for agricultural products.[21] The Community began questioning the developing country status of some of ASEAN’s members but continuation of GSP tariff rates was of particular concern to ASEAN. Its members feared that if they lost their developing status they would be forced to extend reciprocity to the EU and thereby open their protected sectors to EU competition.[22]

This dialogue was quite representative of the long-standing limits of Euro-Asian cooperation: Europe was not going to have the assurances it wanted concerning the respect of IP rights. At the same time, the EC could not abandon their anti-dumping investigations, and improvements in GSP for agricultural products were not easy to adopt because of Community production or because certain products were included in the Lomé Convention (and had a special status inside the Common Market). The Community was ready to discuss reform of the Cooperation Agreement towards a more equal partnership, but for the Europeans this meant better access for their exports to ASEAN markets.

The EC-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held in Luxembourg in 1991 revealed clearly how the situation was worsening. ASEAN representatives wanted four main points to be included in a revised cooperation agreement: a trade consultation mechanism, participation in EC Sciences and Technology Programmes open to third world countries (thus, to have a right to a say in the management of the programme), the extension of EIB funding to the ASEAN region and the EC’s support for transfer of EC industries to South-East Asia. The Community wanted to insert a reference to human rights, economic development, protection of the environment, improvement of the business climate and human resources in the Joint Declaration. It was open to discussing the first three points proposed by ASEAN but not the relocation of European industries. For their part, ASEAN countries did not want any reference to human rights and economic development. In the end, both sides agreed not to list their priorities in the final declaration. No agreement was possible on the Uruguay Round which went beyond a simple statement on the desirability of an early conclusion and a balanced package. The presence of only 7 European Ministers out of 12 contributed to giving ASEAN countries the impression of European indifference and fatigue. In the conclusions of the meeting a Commission document asserted: «it is difficult to reconcile the time spent or the expense involved, with the results achieved.»[23]

5. The post-Cold War period

It seems logical that between 1989 and 1992 the Twelve were focusing on the management of the new situation created in Europe with the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany and then the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Maastricht and the birth of the European Union in February 1992.[24] However the perspective of a «Fortress Europe» provoked many concerns in ASEAN countries in spite of the reassurances given by the Community. In the post-Maastricht period, ASEAN feared the risk of seeing Europe focusing on the preparation of adhesion for its Eastern countries, thus neglecting ASEAN partnership; even with its limits, the European presence was still a useful counterweight to the US and Japanese role in ASEAN countries.[25]

At the same time, the end of the Cold War had a strong impact on Asia too. The uncertainty linked to the evolution of the US military presence in the region and the new role of China forced ASEAN to redesign itself and strengthen its institutions: in 1992 ASEAN reformed its institutional structure, formalizing summit meetings and increasing the duties and rank of the ASEAN Secretary-General. The decision to create a Free Trade Area by 2003 is worth-mentioning. In 1994, ASEAN held the first meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to discuss questions of security and conflict resolution.[26] ARF included most of the Asian countries, North America, EU and Russia. The discussions were, on the basis of the ASEAN model, consensus-oriented, and participants wished to avoid conflictual debate. Formalization of these discussions occurred when ASEAN realized that if it wanted to remain relevant in the post-Cold War order it needed to impose its procedures on the Asia-Pacific security discourse and be part of all Asia-Pacific security deliberations.[27] The adhesion of Vietnam, in 1995, the most important opponent of the past decade, coupled with a growth rate of 7-8% until 1996, contributed to making ASEAN more assertive at an international level.

Taking this evolution into account, in 1994 the EU approved a new strategy not only towards ASEAN but encompassing all the continent.[28] The proposal of the Commission, formalized by a Communication, was approved by the Council in its meeting in Essen in December 1994. Many elements pushed the EU to review its position in Asia. First of all, there was the basic need not to be excluded by one of the most dynamic regions in the world. Secondly, it was essential to balance the Japanese and American influence as well as the organisations supported by Tokyo and Washington (such as the newly founded APEC)[29]. Moreover, the EU wanted to show that it was not focusing only on the transition in Eastern Europe and the preparation of the East-enlargement but was ready to reinforce its partnership with Asian countries. It was more necessary than ever to reinforce mutual knowledge and to make European, as well as Asian business communities, conscious of the opportunities for both parts. In a document summarizing the EU strategy the Commission explained: «L’Europe comprend peu les changements considérables intervenus en Asie durant les 20 dernières années et perçoit les économies asiatiques dynamiques comme une menace; L’Asie perçoit l’Europe comme protectionniste et avant tout préoccupée par ses problèmes internes et périphériques.»[30] To change the situation and improve the European image in Asia it was necessary to make the European position in favour of the liberalization of trade known, to reinforce cultural and university exchanges and to support European firms investing in Asian markets.

As already argued, the new strategy concerned all of Asia, not only ASEAN. In a few years, the Community updated its relations with all the main Asian countries. In 1993, the EIB was finally authorized to operate in Latin America and in Asia, where the Bank invested 440 million ECU in 12 projects between 1993 and 1997.[31] In 1994, a new Cooperation agreement with India was implemented. Based on respect of human rights, it included provisions aimed at diversifying trade, improving market access and developing cooperation in a number of fields.[32] Taking into account the growing importance of India, the Commission also proposed the adoption of a stronger partnership (followed in June 2000 by a bilateral Summit held in Lisbon). In 1996, a new framework trade and cooperation agreement was signed with South Korea with the aim to step up cooperation in a number of relevant areas, such as trade, industrial cooperation, scientific research and technology, and environmental protection.[33] China was, of course, part of this large movement of revision of the existing agreements. In 1995, the Commission pointed out the relevance of this country for Europe, and the need for a smooth transfer of Hong Kong and Macao to China.[34] In 1998, the Council approved the proposal of the Commission for a new partnership with China, based on five priorities: to foster China’s integration into the international community by stepping up political dialogue, to support China’s transition to an open society founded on the rule of law and human rights, to make China a more integral part of the world economy, to make better use of European financing and to consolidate the image of the EU in China.[35] The same year, the first EU-China Summit in London was organized, and the President of the Commission, Jacques Santer, paid an official visit to the country: it was the first visit of the President of the Commission since Delors in July 1986. Discussions focused on China’s economic reforms, the financial crisis in Asia, the human rights situation in China, the effects of the launch of the euro and EU-China trade relations and cooperation.[36] In South-East Asia, the EU concluded a new set of agreements – called «third generation» agreements, as they were based on respect of human rights and democratic principles – with Vietnam (1996), Laos (1997) and Cambodia (1999).

As far as ASEAN was concerned, the Commission proposed the adoption of a new strategy in 1996. It officially recognized the importance of the ASEAN role in the restructuring of relations in Asia from a political and economic point of view: «ASEAN is on the way to achieving a political and economic community adapted to the needs of the whole variety of its member countries.» The ASEAN Summit in Bangkok in December 1995 showed, in the opinion of the Commission, a «clear will to consolidate economic links and pursue a political vision for the whole region.»[37] Discussion for the adhesion of Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos reinforced the ambition of the organization to play a bigger role in the region. Growth in the region had been impressive: between 1989 and 1994 average growth was 7% per annum, with some countries such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia achieving growth rates of nearly 9%.[38] In the early 1990s, the EU had improved its position becoming ASEAN’s largest export market and the third largest trading partner (always after Japan and the US). In 1995, for the first time since 1984, EU exports to ASEAN had risen by almost 20%. The EU had nonetheless lost its market share, mainly to Japan, and access to the ASEAN countries market remained difficult. However, Europe had become the second largest investor in ASEAN member states ahead of the US (but behind Japan).

Still, this evolution was not without problems. From an economic point of view, Europe asked for better access to the ASEAN developed markets: for example, the EU wanted an end to restrictions on its exports in the textiles trade: Spain, Italy and Portugal could be direct competitors with ASEAN producers in ASEAN markets.[39] At the same time, the EC insisted on the removal of restrictions on repatriation of capital and greater foreign investment liberalization. Respect for IP rights was always a central question for Europeans who insisted on this point when facing the ASEAN requests of technology transfer.[40] From a more general point of view, the EU put ASEAN under pressure to respect social, security and environmental norms. European governments wanted to avoid risks of social dumping and considered that ASEAN economies were now sufficiently developed to respect the same working conditions as industrializes countries. These requests were however not well received by the South-East Asian governments which defended the idea of «Asian values» at the core of their social and economic life: Mahathir Mohammad, the Malaysian Prime Minister, openly criticized the neo-colonialist attitude of European governments.[41] The question of East Timor and its occupation by Indonesia was also a recurrent problem in relations between Europe and Indonesia; Portugal had already refused to take part in the EU-ASEAN meetings organized in Indonesia to protest against the situation on the island. Repression of student movements in Timor Est in November 1991 renewed tension.

In this sensitive, complex situation, the Commission affirmed the need to develop a clear vision of the future of relations between the EU and ASEAN. An intricate web of ties had been developed since the 1980 agreement, but without a common project and a new instrument, EU-ASEAN relations risked becoming only routine discussions. Without abandoning the defence of human rights, it was necessary to become more pragmatic, the Commission said, and adjust the framework of the partnership with ASEAN to the existing situation: Europe could not risk being excluded by one of the most dynamic regions in the world. At the same time, the EU could play a useful role as a counterbalance to Japan and the US and influence economic and social process in the region. The Commission proposed to reinforce political dialogue, to support ASEAN countries’ integration into the multilateral system and to adopt measures to increment trade and investment. These proposals were approved by the European Council and ASEAN members during a meeting in Singapore in February 1997. The participants insisted especially on the importance of economic cooperation, which, given the East-Asian economic crisis, was not surprisingly. However, the adhesion of Myanmar to ASEAN in 1997 made the situation more sensitive from a political point of view. The Europeans refused to meet with an authoritarian regime regularly violating human rights and the meeting with ASEAN was suspended until a compromise was found in 1999 on the ‘passive’ (without right to speak) presence of the Burmese representative.

6. The ASIA Europe Meeting (ASEM)

Linked to, but independent from, the EU-ASEAN dialogue was the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM): the main channel for communication between Europe and Asia as the Commission described it in 2007.[42] Singapore played a key role, when its Prime Minister, visiting France in October 1994, proposed to organize a broad meeting between the EU and the Asian countries. This initiative arrived in a crucial moment and helped the Commission to implement the New Asian Strategy with concrete proposals and activities.[43] The purpose behind this proposal was to establish a clear, open channel of dialogue between Europe and East Asia, complementing what East Asia had already established with the US within the APEC framework.[44] In the opinion of the Commission, the new partnership was to be based on the promotion of political dialogue, the deepening of economic relations and reinforcement of cooperation in various fields, and should contribute to the global development of societies in Asia and Europe.[45] From the Asian side, the perception was that in the post-Cold War context, it was possible to establish an economic agenda freed from ideological competition.[46] In the preparation of the agenda, however, there were fundamental differences between the Asian and European members, the former being mainly interested in closer economic relations, while the latter wanted to discuss regional security and human rights. The question of East Timor continued to split the Europeans and the Asian countries supporting Indonesia which did not want to open a discussion on this issue. Moreover, the EU governments needed to take into account the pressure of their lobbies or NGOs which wanted their leaders to include labour rights and environmental protection in any discussion with Asian countries. From an economic point of view, the EU sought to use ASEM to adopt a statement of support on some World Trade Organisation issues such as negotiations on trade in information technology and telecommunications and financial services. The Asian countries, for their part, tried to focus on protectionism, particularly with regard to antidumping.[47] The final agenda was a combination of Asian and European concerns, even though the pragmatic approach defended by the Asian countries prevailed due to divisions among the EU members: «the telling sign was that human rights and labour standards barely made it on the agenda; the East Timor issue was deftly handled on the fringes of the summit in a breakthrough meeting between the Portuguese premier, Antonio Guterres and President Suharto of Indonesia.»[48]

The Summit was held in Bangkok in 1996 and brought together EU member states, the Commission, ASEAN member states plus China, Japan and South-Korea. From an organizational point of view, it consisted of an informal meeting of Heads of State or Prime Ministers with a very general agenda.[49] The Summit, in spite of the uncertainties and differences among its members, was considered a success. The major accomplishment was the commitment to hold a second Summit, in London, two years later and a third in South Korea in 2000. At the same time, it was established that several ministerial meetings would be organized before the second Summit in London. In the following months, numerous follow-up meetings were held to discuss customs cooperation, investment promotion and measures to facilitate trade. The first Asia-Europe business forum took place in Paris in October 1996.[50] In February 1997, the Asia-Europe Foundation, in charge of cultural cooperation, was inaugurated in Singapore and the Asia-Europe Centre for environmental technology, established in Thailand, was launched concurrently with the second Summit in 1998.

ASEM revealed its usefulness during the East-Asian financial crisis, providing European and Asian countries with a forum to discuss and adopt measures in favour of the Asian states. From a wider, political, point of view, it proved European interest in Asian countries, in a difficult economic moment for the Asian continent, and in a complex situation for the EC which was preparing its «big bang»: enlargement to 10 East-European countries. Tensions were not absent in the preparation of the London Summit (April 1998), with the Europeans refusing to extend an invitation to Myanmar, but the most challenging problem was to dispel the impression that the «Europeans had done too little, too late, to help the Asians in the advent of the economic crisis.»[51] European leaders took advantage of the Summit to reaffirm their interest towards Asia. This manifestation of attention was followed by the adoption of several initiatives, such as the creation of an ASEM trust fund at the World Bank, a European network of financial experts to facilitate financial reform in Asia, action plans to promote trade and investment and a ‘Vision Group’ charged with examining long-term prospects for relations between Asia and Europe.[52] The Trust fund began operations some months later, in June 1998. Supposed to operate till the end of 2001, its existence was prolonged during the third ASEM summit in Seoul.[53]


In two decades, relations between Europe and ASEAN countries evolved considerably, moving from a donor-beneficiary relationship to a more equal partnership. However, this evolution was not smooth nor without contradictions. A key factor contributing to the evolution was, of course, the end of the Cold War due to the impact it produced on the restructuring of relations in Europe and Asia. From a wider point of view, the end of the East-West divide contributed to the politicization of bilateral relations, with the EU raising the question of respect of human rights in ASEAN countries, refusing to meet the Myanmar High Representatives, asking for better protection of the environment and respect of international norms of decent work. For their part, ASEAN countries considered these requests as a manifestation of European protectionism and often arrogance. Their impressive growth (at least until 1997) justified their economic policies and, as far as the human rights issue was concerned, it was seen as an excuse to interfere with domestic affairs. At the same time, other factors favoured the search for more important collaboration from both sides: Asian and European countries considered that there were important trade opportunities to exploit in strengthening commercial relations. For Asian countries, Europe was lagging behind the US and Japan in exports and investments, but it was still relevant and could play a useful role as a counterbalance. For the Europeans, it would be economic nonsense to be excluded from one of the most dynamic regions in the world. Moreover, the multilateral economic negotiations of the 1980s and 1990s (such as the UNCTAD negotiations, the Uruguay Round) showed opportunities of cooperation between them and eventually the possibility of common positions against other economic players (for example, to protest against restrictions of the Japanese market). Nevertheless, in spite of all the reasons commanding a more significant presence in the area, European potential always remained underdeveloped as the Commission’s constant proposals for relaunch show. Competing in Asia with Japan or the US demanded a much more sustained investment, an effort that the EU could not agree on, even without considering the differences in terms of instruments and resources between a state and an international organisation. A consequence of this situation is however that the EC could not «make the difference» from a political or economic point of view.

If compared to relations with other developing areas, it is interesting to point out how ASEAN countries were immediately perceived by the European Community as crucial actors of the international political economy. Special conditions were concluded in favour of the developing ASEAN countries, but the region was conceived as part of an economic international system based on GATT rules.[54] Moreover, ASEAN countries had national structures and identities which were generally stronger than other developing states. They could adopt and implement national economic strategies more easily than other developing countries. These factors conditioned the type of cooperation which was possible to establish between them and the EU. While some thematic actions were typical of the EU development policy since the 1980s (environment protection, the promotion of sustainable development, food aid, the promotion of gender equality and women status), some elements were specific to ASEAN-EU relations. These include the importance of trade and investment issues, the rapid questioning of the developing status of some ASEAN countries, the evolution of trade patterns between the two regions (with the growing importance of ASEAN manufactured exports towards Europe) and efforts (especially since the 1990s but without much success) to establish bodies of common governance. Actually, the military irrelevance of the EU was a constant obstacle for playing a significant role in the region, especially in a context marked by nuclear proliferation risks, terrorism, and growing military tensions. In this situation, what the Community tried to put forward for enhancing its position was a more «neutral» political role (compared to the US or Japan), insisting on the benefits that a partnership with the EU could provide in terms of energy, scientific and technology development of the region.



[1] Wen-Qing Ngoei, ‘«A Wide Anticommunist Arc»: Britain, ASEAN, and Nixon’s Triangular Diplomacy’, Diplomatic History, Vol. 41, Issue 5, 2017, pp. 903-932.

[2] Shaun Narine ‘Forty years of ASEAN: a historical review’, The Pacific Review, Vol. 21, Issue 4, 2008, p. 414.

[3] Ibid., p. 416.

[4] French Diplomatic Archives, from here onwards FDA, DE-CE 1981-83/1924, Note n. 591/CE, ‘Relations entre la Communauté et l’ANSEA’, 9 octobre 1981.

[5] Art. 2, Cooperation Agreement (

[6] University of Pittsburgh, Archive of European Integration, from here onwards AEI, EU Commission, Press Notice: The Community’s project aid in Asia, 1982 (

[7] FDA, DE-CE 1984-86/2376, Note d’information, 12 novembre 1984.

[8] AEI, Joint Declaration, 5th EC-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, Dublin, 15-16 November 1984 (

[9] FDA, DE-CE 1984-86/2376, Télégramme de Singapour, n. 554, 13 novembre 1984.

[10] FDA, DE-CE 1984-86/2376, Télégramme DFRA Bruxelles n. 1618, 22 novembre 1984.

[11] Ibid.

[12] FDA, DE-CE 1987-89/3043, Note n. 979 sur les relations entre la CEE et l’ASEAN, 6 juillet 1987.

[13] FDA, DE-CE 1984-86/2376, Télégramme DFRA Bruxelles n. 904, 17 juillet 1985.

[14] FDA, DE-CE 1984-96/2382, Report of the ASEAN-EEC High Level Working Party on Investment, March 1986.

[15] FDA, DE-CE 1984-96/2382, Note n. 1250 sur les relations CEE-ASEAN, 1 septembre 1986.

[16] FDA, DE-CE 1984-96/2382, Note n. 448 sur les investissements européens dans l’ASEAN et les Comités d’investissements CEE-ASEAN, 7 avril 1988.

[17] FDA, DE-CE 1984-96/2382, PVD 22 Asie (Résultat des travaux du Groupe Asie en date du 23 septembre 1987), 1er octobre 1987.

[18] FDA, DE-CE 1984-96/2382, Note n. 999 sur les relations entre la CEE et l’ASEAN, 13 juin 1989.

[19] FDA, DE-CE 1984-96/2382, Commission of the European Communities. Draft: Information note on EEC/ASEAN relations, March 1988.

[20] AEI, COM (90)575, Communication from the Commission on the ‘EC-International investment partners’ facility for Latin America, Asia and the Mediterranean’, 7 March 1991 (

[21] FDA, DE-CE 1987-89/3043, Commission of the European Communities, DG I, 2nd EEC-ASEAN Trade Experts Meeting (Brussels, 28 November 1988), 9 December 1988.

[22] May T. Yeung, Nicholas Perdikis & William A. Kerr, Regional trading blocs in the Global Economy. The EU and ASEAN, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1999, p. 97.

[23] AEI, Commission of the European Communities, DG I, Working Document: 9th EC-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, Luxembourg May 30-31 1991, Brussels, 3 June 1991. (

[24] See among others Wilfried Loth, Building Europe. A history of European unification, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015, pp. 271-322. Desmond Dinan (ed.), Origins and evolution of the European Union, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; Mark Gilbert, European Integration: a concise history, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012; Martin Dedman, The origins and development of the European union 1945-2008: a history of European integration, London, New York: Routledge 2010.

[25] May T. Yeung, Nicholas Perdikis & William A. Kerr, Regional trading blocs in the Global Economy. The EU and ASEAN, p. 100.

[26] Shaun Narine ‘Forty years of ASEAN: a historical review’, p. 418.

[27] Sheldon W. Simon, ‘ASEAN and South-East Asia. Remaining Relevant’, in David Shambaugh & Michael Yahuda (eds.), International relations of Asia, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014, p. 235.

[28] COM(94)314, Communication from the Commission to the Council, ‘Towards a new Asia strategy’, 13 July 1994 ( 51994DC0314).

[29] «APEC was established in November 1989 with an original membership comprising of the ASEAN countries, Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. In 1991 the Republic of China-Taiwan, Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China joined. Mexico and Papua New Guinea were added in 1993 and Chile in 1994. […] APEC is a non-confrontational, high-level form to identify strong common global economic interests for East Asia and its North-American trading partners. It also serves as a framework for Japan to increase its leadership role as a counterbalance to the US». May T. Yeung, Nicholas Perdikis & William A. Kerr, Regional trading blocs in the Global Economy, p. 60.

[30] Historical Archives of the European Union, Fonds Jacques Delors, JD 1634, Note d’information à la Commission sur le suivi de la nouvelle stratégie asiatique.

[31] Bruno Kermarec, L’UE et l’ASEAN: mondialisation at intégrations régionales en Europe et en Asie, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003, p. 110.

[32] European Commission, General Report on the Activities of the European Union, 1994, Luxembourg: OPOCE, 1995, p. 306.

[33] European Commission, General Report on the Activities of the European Union, 1996, Luxembourg: OPOCE, 1997, p. 367.

[34] COM(95)279, ‘A long term policy for China-Europe relations’, 5 July 1995, (

[35] AEI, COM(1998)181, ‘Building a comprehensive partnership with China’, 25 March 1993 (

[36] European Commission, General Report on the Activities of the European Union, 1998, Luxembourg: OPOCE, 1999, p. 315.

[37] COM (96)314, ‘Creating a new dynamic in EU-ASEAN relations’, 3 July 1996, p. 4 (

[38] Ibid., p. 5.

[39] J. Weiss, ‘Another Single Market’, Europe, 1990 (256), p. 23-24, cit. in May T. Yeung, Nicholas Perdikis & William A. Kerr, Regional trading blocs in the Global Economy. The EU and ASEAN, p. 99.

[40] Ibid, p. 102.

[41] David M. Milliot, ‘Europe-Asie, le XXI siècle’, Outre-Terre, Vol. 1, Issue 6, 2004, p. 277.

[42] Jörn Dosch, ‘Europe and the Asia Pacific. Achievements of inter-regionalism’, in Michael Kelly Connors, Remy Davison & Jörn Dosch, The new global politics of the Asia Pacific, London, New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 146.

[43] Jacques Pelkmans, ‘A bond in search of more substance: reflections on the EU’s ASEAN policy’ in Chia Siow Yue & Joseph L. H. Tan (eds.), ASEAN & EU. Forging new linkages and strategic alliances, Singapore: Institut of Southeast Studies, 1997, p. 42.

[44] AEI, Horst G. Krenzler, Director General, DG I European Commission «Europe and Asia – a New Approach», CEPS, 21 February 1996 (

[45] Ibid.

[46] David Camroux, The Rise and Decline of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). Asymmetric bilateralism and the limitations of interregionalism, Les Cahiers européens de Sciences Po n. 6, Paris: Centre d’études européennes (CEE) at Sciences Po, 2004, p. 4.

[47] Lay Hwee Yeo, Asia and Europe: the development and different dimensions of ASEM, New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 73.

[48] Ibid.

[49] AEI, COM (96)4, «Regarding the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) to be held in Bangkok on 1-2 March 1996», 16 January 1996 ( eprint/65993).

[50] European Commission, General Report on the Activities of the European Union, 1996, p. 345.

[51] Lay Hwee Yeo, Asia and Europe: the development and different dimensions of ASEM, p. 75.

[52] European Commission, General Report on the Activities of the European Union, 1998, p. 311

[53] Lay Hwee Yeo, Asia and Europe: the development and different dimensions of ASEM, p. 75.

[54] The Lomé Convention, signed by the European Community and the ACP countries in 1975 and renewed every five years, was based on clauses which were in large parts exceptions to the GATT rules.

Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples


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