EU Summit to Showcase Bloc’s Focus On Asia-Pacific Region – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond*

The “pivot to Asia” was a phrase first popularized by US policymakers during the Obama administration. However, it also highlights the EU’s increasing focus on the world’s fastest-growing economic region in a way that is often overlooked. 

The latest signal of intent from the Brussels-based club toward the Asia-Pacific will come this weekend, with the EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy chief Josep Borrell co-chairing the EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum in Stockholm. With the aim of strengthening the partnership between the EU and the Asia-Pacific region, the meeting will bring together about 60 foreign ministers, along with representatives of regional organizations and other partners. 

The Asia-Pacific region, which extends from the east coast of Africa to the island nations of the Pacific Ocean, is home to three-fifths of the world’s population. It accounts for 60 percent of global gross domestic product, two-thirds of global growth, 40 percent of the EU’s total imports and, together with the EU, drives 70 percent of global trade. 

The upcoming summit will further lay down a framework for political and economic cooperation between the two regions based on mutual respect and equality. Discussions will center on common challenges with respect to security, trade, global value chains, digitalization, the green transition and energy security. 

Europe’s underlying goal of engagement with the Asia-Pacific is to build competitive advantage vis-a-vis other world powers, including the US. While states across Europe, including the UK, have ramped up engagement with Asia-Pacific partners in recent years, it is the 27-member EU that is at the vanguard of this. 

Last year, the EU agreed a new Asia-Pacific strategy to reinforce its strategic focus, presence and actions in this region of prime strategic importance. The aim is to bolster regional stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development at a time of rising challenges and tensions in a bid to uphold democracy, human rights, the rule of law and respect for international law. 

The EU’s approach and engagement seeks to foster a rules-based international order, a level playing field, as well as an open and fair environment for trade and investment, reciprocity, the strengthening of resilience, tackling climate change and supporting connectivity with Europe. On the latter point, one reason that the EU is keen to engage the Asia-Pacific more deeply is that it is at the vanguard of digitalization and technology. 

The EU has announced its intent to launch a regional branch for the Asia-Pacific region within the Digital for Development Hub. This is with a view to fostering digital cooperation to support a sustainable, inclusive digital transformation. 

This includes the importance of ensuring a high level of protection of personal data, as reflected in the declaration between the EU and nine Asia-Pacific countries (Australia, the Comoros, India, Japan, Mauritius, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Sri Lanka) on privacy and personal data protection to strengthen confidence in the digital economy and continue cooperation on trusted data flows. The EU has also supported the launch of negotiations for digital partnerships between the EU and Japan, Singapore and South Korea, based on shared values and a common approach to a human-centric digital transformation. 

Outside of economics, free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law are also key. Europe is working increasingly closely with its Asia-Pacific partners in security and defense, including malicious cyber activities, terrorism and organized crime. 

Moreover, the EU last year announced the extension of the concept of a coordinated maritime presence in the northwest Indian Ocean. This will allow the EU to further support stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region, optimize naval deployments, promote coherence of European action and facilitate the exchange of information and cooperation with partners in the Asia-Pacific, including by conducting joint maritime exercises and port calls. Furthermore, the EU reaffirmed its determination to enhance its engagement in security and defense with partners in the region, for example through strengthening its dialogues and bilateral relationships. 

As well as the upcoming summit, European intent toward the Asia-Pacific is manifested in the wider, growing number of EU annual conferences with key emerging market giants such as India, plus major industrialized nations such as Japan. This is also already allowing the EU to make headway in the massive region.  

One example is India. With the EU27 as a whole, these are the world’s two largest democracies, and they are keen to forge stronger ties. The European bloc is already India’s largest single trade and investment partner, hence why the new bilateral trade deal under discussion is a key potential prize for both parties.  

Yet, as important as Europe’s relations with emerging markets are, industrialized nations are important too. With Japan, for instance, the EU enjoys a growing agenda. These two powers have, for instance, stepped up their leadership on international trade and the rules-based economic order.  

This core economic agenda was given a fillip in 2019, when the EU-Japan free trade agreement entered into force, covering about a third of global GDP and almost 650 million people. The accord took years to agree, with the headlines captured by the scrapping of almost all duties on imports.  

These examples showcase why Europe sees such a big opportunity in the Asia-Pacific. This massive region is a growing priority for the EU as it tries to steal a march on others, including the US, which is also pivoting there, to try to drive economic and political advantage in the 2020s and beyond. 

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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