Europe’s Tilt Toward Asia

By Robert A. Pollard

The 9th ASEM Summit held in Laos during 2012. Source: European Council's fickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The 9th ASEM Summit was held in Laos during 2012. Source: European Council’s fickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

A commonly held view is that Europe has been playing catch-up with the United States ever since Washington began its rebalance to Asia. In reality, the European Union and its member states have been quietly but effectively engaging in their own “tilt” toward Asia for some years; the U.S. pivot only accelerated the process. Yet the European shift toward Asia so far has not marked a significant geopolitical shift, let alone a challenge to U.S. interests in the region. Instead, it raises the possibility for constructive engagement with the United States in Asia on a number of fronts, from trade liberalization and development assistance to human rights and nonproliferation.

Initially the U.S. rebalance generated widespread angst in Europe that the continent’s best ally was leaving it behind.  There was some basis for European alarm; after all, the Obama administration had stated it intended to shift more resources to Asia, and this presumably meant less engagement in Europe. The ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops in Europe, coupled with a modest boost of such forces in Asia and the rapid expansion of U.S. trade with the Asia Pacific, fed such fears, prompting a rethink on Asia in European capitals.

In fact, there was no sea change in U.S. policy toward Europe. U.S. policymakers were quick to reassure their European counterparts that Europe remained the United States’ highly valued partner and ally, and the massive trade and investment relationship remained intact. Our common values and interests vis-à-vis Asia, they said, should make it possible to “pivot together” toward China and other emerging economies.

Before it could do so, Brussels first had to undergo a major shift on global trade policy. For many years, European officials had sharply criticized the United States for negotiating numerous bilateral and regional free trade agreements (FTAs) that allegedly undermined progress in the Doha Round of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations. The first signs of a shift came in 2007, when the European Commission announced it was initiating a “new generation” of FTAs. Little changed, however, even as the unraveling of Doha and the European financial crisis underscored the urgency of ramping up FTA negotiations and strategic dialogues in Asia.

It was the U.S. decision to launch the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, and then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s announcement of a “pivot” to Asia, both in late 2011, that really galvanized European action.

Suddenly Europeans began to sound just like Americans in arguing that FTAs can run in parallel with and reinforce trade liberalization through the WTO. Several countries quickened the pace of engagement with China, with Berlin, London, Paris, and the European Union conducting strategic dialogues with Beijing. At the same time, the European Union’s diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service (EEAS), cranked out strategic documents and ramped up its presence in Southeast Asia with new ambassadors and dialogues supporting EU-ASEAN economic cooperation. In some instances, the European Union leaped ahead of the United States despite its late start. Its FTA with South Korea, for instance, came into force in July 2011, before the U.S. FTA with Korea. Brussels has also completed an FTA with Singapore and launched free trade negotiations with Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as conducting talks on a bilateral investment treaty with China.

The question remains, however, whether this reflects a fundamental shift in European foreign policy. Unfortunately the picture is blurred because of the competing and often overlapping roles of Brussels institutions—through the EEAS, the European Commission, and the European Council—and certain EU member states that continue to maintain independent foreign policy agendas in the region. An example of this duality was Berlin’s surprising decision in 2013 to block EU anti-dumping duties on Chinese solar equipment exports, which undercut not only Brussels’ core competency on trade, but also the European Union’s effort to lead strategic engagement with Beijing.

The European tilt also raises the question of whether its growing diplomatic activity simply reflects traditional commercial interests, or signals a broader strategic commitment in Asia. At the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2012, for instance, the EU signaled its intention to become more involved in such matters as territorial and maritime disputes, counter-piracy, and nonproliferation in the region. From 2007 to 2013, the EU also targeted about 5.2 billion Euros for development aid to Asia. The evidence, however, so far suggests a modest shift in emphasis; trade and investment interests still trump political and security concerns. Moreover, despite its activity on FTAs, Europe has no strategic equivalent to the TPP.

What are the implications of Europe’s rebalance for U.S. interests? There has always been an element of economic rivalry between the United States and Europe in third-country markets, and Asia will be no exception. Britain, France, and Germany will continue marketing military equipment and Airbus aircraft to Asian governments, to the possible disadvantage of their U.S. competitors. European governments are also more likely to sell dual-use technologies to China than is Washington.

Still, the global financial crisis has pushed both sides closer in an effort to jumpstart trade, investment, and jobs and compete with rapidly rising emerging powers, notably China. The realization that European and U.S. businesses faced common problems in China—from intellectual property theft to competition from state-owned enterprises—likewise helped push Washington and Brussels to work more closely together in the WTO and other forums. Mutual efforts in the WTO to challenge Chinese policy on restrictions of rare-earths exports and intellectual property protection illustrated this trend. And one component of the decision to commence talks on the U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was a shared interest in preventing China from dictating international standards and regulations for goods and services.

Nonetheless, the European initiative suffers from a number of weaknesses. Although trade (notably exports) with East Asia is booming, the economic slump resulting from the Eurozone crisis means the continent offers a less attractive market to Asian businesses and investors than does the United States. In addition, without any substantial military presence in Asia, Europe has no pretense of becoming a Pacific power and is not a participant in the East Asia Summit. Ironically, although these export-oriented nations should be as concerned with freedom of navigation and open sea lanes in the Asia-Pacific region as the United States, only the United Kingdom and France have shown some limited interest in Asian security issues while Germany remains almost wholly absorbed by commercial concerns.

In this context, Europe may well wish to pair up with the United States, which exerts considerably more power and influence in Asia, on issues from the human rights agenda and development policy to maritime security in the South China Sea and nonproliferation on the Korean peninsula. Then governments on both sides of the Atlantic could more fully explore the economic and security implications of pivoting together toward Asia.

Mr. Robert Pollard is a State Department Visiting Fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed in this article are entirely his own.


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