Asean-EU: Strengthening our partnership is a necessity

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ON September 12, I had the pleasure to discuss with my Asean counterparts the strengthening of cooperation between our two regions. In a world hit by the pandemic and characterized by power politics, we have a lot in common. Our joint work should ensure that we defend the rules-based international system and ensure every human being can enjoy the security and rights we sometimes take for granted.

If the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the European Union (EU) and Asean must come together as like-minded “partners in integration,” even if they are geographically distant. While others choose to undercut multilateralism, our organizations should ensure that our trading systems, prosperity and security are governed by rules and based on international agreements—not on the idea that “might makes right.” Neither Asean nor the EU is ready is to become part of any “sphere of influence.” It is not the law of the strong that must prevail, but the strength of the law.

We know that only by being together can we overcome this terrible pandemic. Last May, we successfully pushed for the adoption of a resolution on Covid-19 by the World Health Organization, which foresees an impartial, independent and comprehensive review of lessons learned from the international health response.

Acting together as the EU, we are assisting partners around the world in tackling the virus and its socioeconomic impact. In Asean alone, we were able to mobilize about €800 million as a “Team Europe” effort, more than any other partner of Asean.

‘Covax,’ trade

FOR this pandemic, the only viable exit strategy is a safe and reliable vaccine. Here also, we choose a multilateral response: The EU is mobilizing €400 million in guarantees to support the initiative for the Covid-19 vaccine, or Covax, for a global supply for citizens across the world—in poor and rich countries. We have proposed that experts from the EU and Asean get together to see how best we can cooperate on vaccine security.

The second priority for both sides will be to reboot our economies. As the first investor in Asean, the EU is committed to stepping up our economic partnership. The challenge is to promote deeper Asean economic integration, as well as closer ties between us.

That means first to pursue our trade agenda: The trade agreements between Singapore and Vietnam have entered into force, and the EU is negotiating other agreements with several of you. We should pursue these with renewed urgency.

In parallel, we have to work even more together to enhance connectivity. We will build on our numerous EU-Asean programs to facilitate trade and integration, as well as build infrastructure to speed up economic recovery. The launch of the EU-supported Asean Customs Transit System later this year is just one other example.

The EU and its member-states contribute 50 percent of the €1.2-billion Asean Green Finance Catalytic Facility. An immediate common objective should be the establishment of an EU-Asean energy dialogue to tap into the potential of sustainable connectivity and the green recovery.

We also look forward to finalizing our Air Transport Agreement as soon as possible. The agreement would be the first of its kind, creating the world’s biggest aviation market for over 1 billion people.

Mutual security

WHILE we focus on Covid-19 and plan the recovery, we should be vigilant about the undercutting of the international rules-based order in other domains. We cannot allow countries to unilaterally undermine international law and maritime security in the South China Sea, thereby representing a serious threat to the peaceful development of the region. Any disruption or instability affects trade flows for everyone, at a time when the pandemic has already struck all our economic systems. Around 40 percent of the EU’s foreign trade goes through the South China Sea.

All parties should refrain from the threat or use of force, the militarization of maritime features, and from any provocative actions. Instead, they should exercise self-restraint and resolve disputes through peaceful means, such as the dispute settlement mechanisms under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos. We look forward to the conclusion of the talks on an effective, substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which should not prejudice the interests of third parties.

Asian security is closely linked to European security. Here also, we need to intensify our cooperation. Last year, the EU signed an agreement on Vietnam’s participation in our European military and civilian missions, which are deployed from the Indian Ocean to Africa. I hope it will be the first of many with our friends in Asean, because our missions do not only serve European interests. They serve the interest of peace and security in some of the most troubled parts of the world.

In the EU, you will always find a trustworthy, reliable and predictable partner. We have no hidden agenda—only a clear and public one: to defend the rules-based international system, and ensure everyone can enjoy the security and rights we sometimes take for granted.

We share a special responsibility: to uphold the global, multilateral order. At times of protectionism, United States-China rivalry and global uncertainty, it is more relevant than ever. Our partnership is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

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