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    Great power competition affects Asia. Could, and should, Europe respond?

    Published On: 3 December 2019

    Writing in the latest issue of Insights, Asia House’s thought leadership publication, Dr Norbert Röttgen, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, German Bundestag, and member of the Asia House Advisory Board, assesses the role Europe has to play in Asia. 

    In the last couple of years geopolitical competition between the major powers has been intensifying. While Russia became much more aggressive in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, China grew much more assertive in Asia and increasingly on a global scale. The United States (US), in contrast, have partially withdrawn from the international scene and refocused their remaining efforts almost exclusively on dealing with China.

    The new situation we are now facing is prone to instability and conflict, as the opportunities for competition increase. This is particularly true for the Asia-Pacific – the prime theatre of US-China confrontation.

    Itself affected by great power dynamics and preoccupied with internal conflicts, Europe has been slow to recognise the importance of Asia’s rise and has struggled to make an impact as an actor in the region. In view of the alarming and unprecedented challenge the competition between the US and China depicts, it is high time for Europe to develop a comprehensive strategy towards the Asia-Pacific that goes beyond mere trade relations.

     

    “It is high time for Europe to develop a comprehensive strategy
    towards the Asia-Pacific that goes beyond mere trade relations.”

     

    Over the last century, America’s policy has been to prevent a regional hegemon in Asia and to install US primacy in military and economic affairs. With the rise of China, the Asia-Pacific is undergoing a transition that describes a movement from US dominance towards a new balance of power logic.

    There is a diffusion of power away from the US to China and to a lesser extent to other states in the region such as Japan, India, South Korea and Australia. While the US still dominates Asia in terms of military capabilities, China has started to wield its economic might to reorder the region.

    Every Asian state now trades more with China than with the United States – an imbalance that is only increasing as China’s economic growth outpaces that of the United States. As a consequence, many Asian states are now caught between Beijing and Washington.

    In view of the new geopolitical rivalry as well as the uncertainty brought about by President Trump’s arrival in the White House, Europe’s potential in Asia has grown – a reality it has yet to fully grasp, appreciate and ultimately embrace. Europe’s stakes in the peace and security of Asia are high. Given the region’s increasing political and economic importance, only few of the European policy goals in free trade, climate change and the perseverance of multilateralism can be achieved without the positive engagement of Asia.

    A crucial part of a more sustainable European presence in Asia includes embedding its already existing trade relations into a more comprehensive and coherent policy approach that includes a global governance and security dimension. Doing so would reflect a crucial aspect of the EU’s 2016 “global strategy” which emphasised a direct connection between European prosperity and Asian security.

    The EU is not a Pacific power and most likely will never be one. But it is an economic powerhouse and market power. Amid concerns about rising protectionism and threats to the multilateral trading system, many states especially in the Asia-Pacific hope that the EU steps in as a third player in meeting the region’s huge infrastructure and investment demands.

    Not only should the EU invest in the region’s connectivity, in view of Trump’s exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it should also continue its policy of bilateral free trade agreements to counter economic dependencies on China. To defend and strengthen international free trade as the dominant trading paradigm, European powers should in addition step up their cooperation with Asian partners in the multilateral fora.

    As trade and security are always interlinked, being a market power inevitably needs to involve a security dimension. In Asia maritime disputes carry a special significance, as water is the organising element of the continent. Securing the right to patrol, to build bases and to regulate trade through these waterways means access to resources critical to sustaining economic growth and political stability. Maintaining the freedom of the seas is thus central for Asia’s growth and stability and therefore by default for Europe’s own prosperity.

     

    “To ease the mounting tensions the necessary and sensible step would be to
    upgrade the French and British national endeavours in the
    South China Sea into a permanent European presence.”

     

    The vulnerability of Asia’s waterways is nowhere more prevalent than in the South China Sea. While the United States insist on the right to navigate freely, for China securing control of these strategically important waters is key. The bordering Southeast Asian states in general welcome a firmer counterbalance to China’s growing influence. But they also fear a great power confrontation in their backyard. Their concerns are not unfounded, in view of more regular US freedom of navigation operations and Chinese military countermeasures.

    To ease the mounting tensions the necessary and sensible step would be to upgrade the French and British national endeavours in the South China Sea into a permanent European presence. Both countries already operate military vessels in the strategically important waterways.

    Spearheaded by Britain and France, a joint initiative should understand itself as European and be recognisable to everyone as such.

    This article is featured in Insights, Issue 3 (November 2019). DOWNLOAD the latest edition now [PDF]