Transatlantic Demand Signal to Washington: Let’s talk about Asia

By Heather Conley & Ernest Bower

An interpreter at work during the EU - South Korea free trade agreement

An interpreter works during the EU-ROK FTA negotiations. European leaders are increasingly looking to discuss Asia with U.S. policymakers and thought leaders. Source: European Parliament’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

There is an interesting trend going on in Washington, DC. European officials and business leaders are seeking out U.S. experts to talk not about transatlantic issues but about Asia. Our CSIS Asia team’s calendars, normally booked with experts and senior officials from across the Indo-Pacific, are now filled with European diplomats, visiting officials and executives who want to talk about U.S. policy toward Asia.

What is going on here?  Several factors are driving a critical need for the United States and Europe to consult one another on the Indo-Pacific in a more comprehensive way and create a new type of conversation around this dynamic region.

First, the Obama administration has not yet connected the dots, at least not in a comprehensive way, linking its relationship with Europe to finding common ground and alignment on its Asia strategy. Few, if any, U.S. senior officials think about advising European allies and partners on a major change in policy direction in Asia. For example, when President Obama formally announced new defense policy guidelines in January 2012, European capitals were notified only shortly before the official announcement.  This fueled unnecessary questions and concerns about whether the pivot to Asia implicitly meant a significantly lighter (or disappearing) U.S. security footprint in Europe.  Coming on the heels of Secretary Clinton’s November 2011 Foreign Policy magazine article entitled “America’s Pacific Century,” Europe was slowly awakening to the U.S. policy of rebalancing to Asia.

Europe mostly shrugged at these announcements however, having already pivoted economically to Asia as well as to other emerging economies. But what Europe’s economic pivot lacks, with the exception of the British and less so with the French, is an Asian security policy, which is an essential component of U.S. policy toward the region.

The second factor is that Europe is presently in a difficult adjustment period following the departure of former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. Assistant Secretary Campbell made it one of his priorities to engage more strategically with Europe about U.S. Asian policy.  He held regular meetings with European ambassadors in Washington to brief them on U.S. policy and to encourage European policy engagement in the region.  He was a frequent visitor to Brussels where he pushed for the formulation of EU policy towards ASEAN and effectively used the personal relationship between then Secretary Hillary Clinton and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton to encourage the EU to become more engaged in Asia. And it worked. In April 2012, Lady Ashton led the largest delegation of EU officials to an EU-ASEAN ministerial dialogue promising deeper institutional ties. Unfortunately, with Campbell’s departure from government service, this vital transatlantic consultation seems to have also departed.

Third, European companies, principally German, are becoming more vocal about issues of common concern in the region — cyber espionage and IPR protections in China, concerns about potential conflict in the South China Sea, the future outlook for the Asia-Pacific economy – but can’t necessarily find the right setting to discuss these issues in Europe.  Europe has not developed mature and high-level policy focused private sector institutions to engage countries from across the Indo-Pacific to complement the work done by the EU and their own countries on a bilateral basis.  Lacking effective leverage and the appropriate fora, many come to Washington to gain a better understanding of America’s approach to these issues as well as to gain a better sense of the larger geopolitical forces at play.

In business terms, we would consider these factors a strong demand signal, meaning there is and will be an increasing demand for close and persistent transatlantic consultation and cooperation regarding this dynamic and evolving region. Yes, such a transatlantic conversation undoubtedly will discuss China’s economic and security policies, but it must also focus on the important opportunities throughout the region and the attending tensions and dynamics.

Washington should think about Europe in the context of its Asia strategies. If the goal in Asia is to convince a rising China of the compelling case that promoting its own national security and economic interests lie in playing a major role in developing global and regional frameworks to update and then abide be international rules, then including Europe in that discussion makes good sense.

The other paradigm shift is connecting economic engagement directly with a more comprehensive definition of security, not only in Asia but globally.  Thus, even though European companies will compete directly with American and Asian firms, all parties have a common interest in establishing world class rules and stability.

Washington could learn more about the pitfalls and benefits of the EU’s many free trade agreements with its Asian partners, for example, a concluded free trade agreement with South Korea; ongoing negotiations for free trade agreements with Japan and ASEAN countries; and continuing negotiations for an agreement with China on investment protection.  The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its three baskets: security and confidence building; cooperation in the field of economics, science, technology and environment; and cooperation on the human dimension could offer lesson learned for future Asian regional cooperation.  And Europe could develop a deeper understanding of regional security dynamics, particularly those that impact freedom of navigation for export-fed economies, such as Germany.  As Washington develops and matures its evolving Asia strategy, it makes sense to enhance and even institutionalize opportunities to share ideas and find opportunities for cooperation with Europe.

For our part, we at CSIS not only hear the demand signal but wish to be responsive to it and work more closely with European and U.S. officials and experts to forge opportunity into reality.

Heather A. Conley is Senior Fellow and Director of the Europe Program at CSIS. Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.


Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.


3 comments for “Transatlantic Demand Signal to Washington: Let’s talk about Asia

  1. June 24, 2013 at 12:44

    Yes, it’s the Indo-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific Century, rather than “Asia” or the “Asia-Pacific”. However, in Europe, few people have recognized this and while all eyes are on China, India and ASEAN are missed too often. Moreover, you are right that the Obama administration should have somehow linked the Pivot with the Europeans. However, don’t count on EU in international security (e.g. Mali: using EU-Battlegroups was not even considered).

    Coming from Germany and dealing with German security policy on a daily basis, I can assure you that – except very few experts – Germany won’t become vocal about the South China Sea or the future outlook for the Indo-Pacific. Right now, Germany is occupied with Europe’s crisis. After the end of ISAF, the mood in Berlin is going to be “never again” when it comes to the question of sending large numbers of troops abroad. Our army has been cut to 180.000 troops. Now, the number 150.000 has already been leaked to the news. Briefly, I consider it to be possible that Germany joins US tracks in the Indo-Pacific in such fields as economics, trade, climate and human rights. However, not in the field of security policy.

    Moreover, I don’t think that Europe has any role to play at the Indo-Pacific security table. The best Europe can do is to coordinate well with the US and to carry more burdens in areas like Africa and the Middle East, so that Washington can pool its resources in the Indo-Pacific.

    Yours sincerely,

    Felix Seidler, associate fellow of Institute for Security Policy Kiel (

    • Ernest Z. Bower
      Ernest Z. Bower
      June 25, 2013 at 11:40


      Appreciate your comment and insight. You are right about Europe’s debt distraction and the lack of security understanding – and that is exactly why we are suggesting that we need to bring the thinking of our European colleagues forward but with realistic expectations. There is also an inherent link – predominant in Asia – between economic integration and regional security, which is a key reason why our European colleagues need to be engaged.


  2. Michael Mollohan Sr
    July 8, 2013 at 15:48

    I have to concur with Felix in that one indicator is the relationship and furthermore the effect of ASEM in the “Indo-Asia Pacific” since it’s inception in the mid to late 1990s. As an individual that has both professionally and personally lived and worked in the region for the past two decades and knowing of ASEM there has been minimal success due in part to the incongruent relationship between the two regions from a security perspective. Security is in the “IAP” tied to everything from socio-economics to disaster resiliency to combatting violent extremism that impedes upon development and political stability. Below two quotes pulled from a research paper published in 1998 how well do they resonate today (?) :

    “ASEM was formed by ASEAN’s interests and the EU’s fear to restrain American influence
    in the Asia Pacific…”
    Yong-Sang Cho and Chong-tae Chung (1997)

    “Asia and Europe will score successes at the ASEM forum if they … succeed in making the
    US become jealous of Asia-Europe relations.”
    Sadahiro Takashi (1997)

    So the real question is why the “demand signal” nearly 18 years on? (EU economic woes of course.)

    Michael S. Mollohan Sr.

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