As a region of immense importance to the European Union (EU), Southeast Asia will feature prominently in the Global Gateway initiative. The strategy, which mainly targets developing countries or regions, will find ideal avenues for EU investment in the development needs of South-East Asia. Southeast Asia continues to lack adequate economic, political and digital connectivity, which undermines the region’s collective economic growth and prosperity. The bloc recognizes the challenge of connectivity within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a key and fundamental priority to boost social and economic development. The Global Gateway offers investments in key physical and digital infrastructure and energy.
Why is ASEAN important for the EU’s global gateway?
After the Second World War, economic globalization became a key strategy for promoting peace, and better regional integration was a key aspect of this. The EU model aimed to establish such an institutional framework, which experts have come to recognize as the epitome of a well-integrated region. Grown from an initial group of five European countries, the EU is now a pan-regional body, which shows how successful the “EU experiment” has been as a long-term project. Despite the shock Brexit brought to European integration – which saw the UK leave the EU in a rather surprising (and narrow) referendum – it remains a strong example of a well-consolidated and cohesive region.
Established in 1967, ASEAN attempted to follow in the successful footsteps of the EU. For example, in 2015, in what many have called ASEAN’s “European moment”, ASEAN states launched the much-loved ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). The AEC was an important step in ASEAN’s quest to achieve full economic integration through a common market, characterized by the free movement of goods, services, investment, capital and skills. In 2019, at the fifty-first meeting of ASEAN economic ministers, the bloc decided to launch a single market amid concerns about growing competition from India and a desire to optimize the relocation of manufacturing from China due to the Sino-American and geopolitical trade war. tensions. Ultimately, ASEAN wants to leverage its collective capabilities to elevate its position in the global supply chain and become one of the world’s top five economies (it currently ranks seventh).
Although ASEAN is not a monolithic group or bound by a single landmass (like the EU), but rather a collection of culturally, politically and economically diverse nations, the two blocs share the values of multilateralism, a rule-based order and free trade. . Both share a strategic partnership supported by regular dialogue and broad cooperation in matters of security and the economy. Thus, the EU regards ASEAN as a like-minded and essential partner in the Indo-Pacific region and in its global gateway strategy.
ASEAN in EU Indo-Pacific Perspectives
As Brussels seeks to strengthen its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, with the publication of its “Cooperation Strategy”, it is crucial to support and promote the existing ASEAN-led institutional architecture and mechanisms in the region. . Rather than seeing its ties with ASEAN as a donor-recipient relationship, the EU sees ASEAN as essential and central to ensuring peace, prosperity and the balance of power in the region. A growing trade relationship with ASEAN is in the EU’s economic interest, and in light of this, Brussels has increasingly sought to emphasize connectivity between the two regions. In 2018, the European Council adopted the document “Connecting Europe and Asia—Building Blocks for an EU Strategy” which aimed to establish “sustainable, secure and smart connectivity” by prioritizing energy, transport, digital and people-to-people links . Brussels shares similar connectivity strategies with Japan and India and, in essence, its Indo-Pacific policy is an extension of this.
Like the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy 2021, which aims to build “strong and enduring partnerships” with regional powers, the Global Gateway has a strong focus on deepening partnerships with “like-minded” partners. similar”. This concerns ASEAN countries, as the strategy aims to build on existing commitments and initiatives in Southeast Asia. Consider the 2018 EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, which Igor Driesmans, the EU Ambassador to ASEAN, pointed to as an example of an area where the two organizations will strengthen their future investments. The Global Gateway also explicitly mentions that the EU intends to “pursue a connectivity partnership with…ASEAN”, similar to those that already exist with Japan and India. The EU’s partnerships with Japan and India are based on a common understanding of what ‘connectivity’ means and on a convergence of their normative commitment to transparency, respect for international rules and standards and rules fair game. India and Japan’s commitment to multilateralism and the liberal world order, as well as their concern over China’s growing influence, have made them skeptical of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). ). Thus, the EU’s alternative approaches to infrastructure investment are attractive. However, for ASEAN countries, the principle of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of countries is an integral part of their diplomacy. Thus, the group may have some reluctance to turn to the EU Global Gateway instead of the BRI, given the normative conditionalities that are attached to the investment.
The centrality of ASEAN: a pivot of the EU’s global gateway?
The Global Gateway initiative, which includes a €300 billion package for international infrastructure connectivity, is part of this broader Indo-Pacific perspective. It brings together the various existing programs and investment programs under one umbrella which reaffirms the vision of the bloc: a stronger Europe capable of building more resilient networks and connections rooted in fundamental European principles. In other words, the EU’s global gateway is a structural result of its Indo-Pacific orientation and aims to strengthen its agency in the region to become a key contributor to the maintenance of peace and stability.
As major power competition between the US and China continues to escalate and geopolitical tensions rise, the EU is increasingly seeking to capitalize on its reputation as a champion of democracy, human rights and rules-based order to achieve positive results in the region. Here, Brussels sees the potential for ASEAN to be a key partner. As social development is one of the main challenges for ASEAN’s internal cooperation, Global Gateway initiatives could contribute to positive and democratic development for the bloc. Like ASEAN’s own Indo-Pacific outlook, the EU emphasizes ASEAN’s centrality and connectivity as key pillars of regional stability. ASEAN has, over time, successfully established institutional mechanisms to formulate multilateral solutions to common problems, placing the bloc at the heart of regional cooperation and integration. With tensions lingering in the regional climate, as the Indo-Pacific teeters on the brink of crisis, these institutions, mechanisms and processes have become ASEAN’s most valuable currency. Given ASEAN’s central regional role and shared imperatives with the EU, the bloc is a natural focal point in Brussels’ Indo-Pacific strategy and global gateway focus.
That said, cooperation between the EU and ASEAN has intensified, so it seems possible that this type of connectivity partnership will bear fruit. Not only has there already been a trend to work together on issues that the Global Gateway will focus on – for example, EU-ASEAN joint statements to promote connectivity and enhance cybersecurity cooperation – but their bilateral partnership is is also reinforced. In 2020 their “strategic partnership” was announced and there was an agreement to work towards an EU-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, with ASEAN now the EU’s third largest trading partner after the US and China. It is interesting to consider why the EU is trying to pursue its relations with the ASEAN countries as a bloc and not individually. The EU does not currently have strategic partnerships with individual ASEAN member states, nor does it intend to have connectivity partnerships with all of them. Clearly, the EU recognizes the centrality of ASEAN within the Indo-Pacific and regards it as an important security partner. Thus, by working with ASEAN rather than individual Member States, the EU promotes deeper integration of ASEAN, ensuring its centrality in the region in the face of rising tensions, and that of the EU as well. . The EU seeks a “security role” in the Indo-Pacific and a strong partnership with ASEAN will increase their influence and recognition in the region.
What the EU Global Gateway for ASEAN means
As the focus on ASEAN has become increasingly important to EU regional visions and ambitions, the global gateway can also bring significant benefits to low- and middle-income countries in the region. Most importantly, the program can deliver material benefits by supporting the development of sustainable infrastructure, green finance, digital transformation and interconnection, as well as strengthening trade competitiveness, resilient value chains and strengthening the environmental and climate cooperation between Europe and Asia.
Additionally, the Global Gateway’s green orientation means that investments in ASEAN countries would be sustainable and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. This is vital for ASEAN countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, which are extremely vulnerable to its effects. Interestingly, China’s BRI has also focused significantly on Southeast Asia, particularly on improving all forms of connectivity. As a result, in 2020, the region became the largest recipient of BRI investments (accounting for 36%). The BRI has invested in much-needed infrastructure projects in ASEAN countries. In turn, ASEAN countries have provided a land bridge to China, connecting it to the rest of Asia and several sea routes. Moreover, ASEAN and China have used the BRI to accelerate their economic growth after the Covid-19 pandemic. An Oxford study found that Chinese funding in Southeast Asia alone amounts to around $740 billion (€653 billion). Some of these loans are subject to questionable lending practices that “prevent borrowers from accessing standard debt restructuring mechanisms”. Furthermore, they have built-in default triggers that potentially and dramatically increase China’s already considerable economic and political influence over the borrowing state.