With US President Donald Trump apparently hell bent on upending global rules, can Europe and Asia join forces to shore up a rapidly weakening multilateral order? New initiatives unveiled by the European Commission for revamping the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and setting governance standards for transport, energy and digital connectivity offer opportunities for more joint Europe-Asian action.
An EU-Asia security strategy issued at the end of May also promises closer cooperation between the two regions in an array of areas including maritime security, cyber and counter-terrorism. The initiatives are important, signalling Europe’s readiness to work with Asia in response to the ABC of a changing global order: America First, Brexit and the rise of China. The Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Brussels on October 18-19 will be a first test of the two regions’ ability to really work together.
To make ASEM work more effectively, both regions have to stop looking to the US for leadership and start looking more seriously at ways of advancing their joint Eurasian interests. Also, Europe and Asia will have to work together as equal partners to fashion a modern, up-to-date multilateral system. This requires that despite their many differences – including over human rights - Europe and Asia’s leading economies start working hand in hand to co-design and co-craft a new global order.
They should focus on three key questions.
First, reforming and modernising the World Trade Organization (WTO). The stakes are high. With Europe-Asia trade worth almost 1.5 trillion euros a year and both regions’ interest in fighting protectionism and preserving the WTO, the need for Europe-Asia cooperation to update WTO content, rules and processes is obvious. But diverging European and Asian interests, will make that difficult. Most importantly, the challenge will be to tackle rising global concerns about access to Chinese markets but also the forced transfer of technology, the role and power of state-owned enterprises, protection of intellectual property rights and industrial subsidies.
Second, connectivity. The EU’s new connectivity strategy is undoubtedly a response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative – but it is also more than that. Europe has watched with a mixture of confusion, curiosity and concern as China has embarked on its ambitious BRI plans worldwide but also within Europe. European opinion about the BRI varies. For some, Beijing is aiming at global dominance, seeking to rewrite global trading rules and/or looking for ways to use its steel and cement surpluses. European businesses are interested in participating but say they don’t get the contracts they compete for. There is concern about the sustainability of some of the projects and fears that developing countries, desperate for cash, are walking into debt traps set by China.
The new EU blueprint with its focus on “sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity” and projects which comply with international environmental, labour and fiscal standards, provides China with a useful rulebook on how best to make some the more abrasive aspects of the BRI compatible with international norms. Also, if “marketed” properly the EU plan could be a godsend for baffled Asian, African and Latin American nations which are looking for help in negotiating infrastructure projects with China.
Finally, Europe and Asia should expand their security dialogues to include discussions on hybrid threats, cooperative security and regional approaches to crisis management. EU membership in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus meetings will boost such cooperation.
The time is right for further Europe-Asian synergies and joint actions on a range of fronts. If they are to play a constructive and stabilising role in a turbulent world, Europe and Asia must wean themselves off their traditional reliance on America and learn to manage their differences and overcome the divides to strike a partnership for a Eurasian future.