Uppatasanti pagoda is biggest pagoda and no. 1 tourist attractions in Naypyidaw. Photo: iStock

While a coherent US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region is yet to take shape, the European Union and China found common ground on three key issues at the 13th Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, which concluded in Naypyidaw on Tuesday.

Reiterating that multilateralism, peaceful resolution of conflicts and diplomacy are the cornerstones of their foreign conduct, the European bloc and the Asian giant focused their attention on Myanmar, North Korea and Iran.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met ahead of the meeting’s plenary session, with the Rohingya crisis topping their agenda. More than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state into Bangladesh since last August, when the local military launched a counterinsurgency operation against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Mogherini and Wang said Brussels and Beijing would support Dhaka’s and Naypyidaw’s efforts to define a bilateral agreement for the sustainable, safe and dignified return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. To break the deadlock, the Chinese envoy proposed a three-phase solution that, in large part, reproduces the EU’s proposals.

Beijing’s plan calls for a ceasefire in Rakhine state, the finalization of a repatriation deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and the promotion of economic development in the affected area

Beijing’s plan calls for a ceasefire in Rakhine state, the finalization of a repatriation deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and the promotion of economic development in the affected area – where poverty is considered by China the root cause of the current crisis.

As far as the North Korean nuclear crisis is concerned, Mogherini stressed that the EU and China agreed to work together to ensure the full, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. She also pointed out that Brussels and Beijing emphasized their “common work” for the full implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, which limits Tehran’s nuke activities. The European grouping and the Chinese powerhouse played an important role in facilitating the conclusion of this multilateral accord in 2015.

With their alignment of interests on North Korea and Iran, the EU and China have sent a clear message to US President Donald Trump – you have to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and refrain from sabotaging the Iran nuclear pact.

The problem of Cambodia

The two sides fundamentally disagreed only on Cambodia. On the sidelines of the Asian-European summit in Naypyidaw, Mogherini told her Cambodian counterpart, Sokhonn Prak, that the EU was against the recent ban imposed on the Cambodian National Rescue Party, the Southeast Asian country’s main opposition force. Mogherini cryptically said to her interlocutor that Brussels could freeze development cooperation with and trade preferences status for Phnom Penh if the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen continued to limit political pluralism.

Unlike the EU’s top diplomat, Wang voiced Beijing’s support for Phnom Penh’s recent actions, seen as an internal effort to safeguard political stability. This is not surprising. Cambodia is China’s best friend within the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), and a useful pawn in the Chinese quest for preeminence in the South China Sea region – where Beijing’s claims are challenged by a number of Asean member states.

Potential stabilizing role

The EU and China are both trade-oriented actors that rely on the stability of their economic partners to prosper. During the recently held 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country would be more proactive on the international stage, especially in its neighborhood. But the Chinese (paramount) leader would have to assess whether an unconditional backing for Myanmar’s generals or Cambodia’s Hun Sen actually promotes regional stability or, in contrast, sows the seeds of future problems.

For its part, the EU seems to have the ambition of becoming a key stakeholder in the Asia-Pacific region. To reach this goal, it is working hard to be recognized as a trusted diplomatic facilitator for peace and non-proliferation processes.

Beijing and Brussels have the combined potential to play a stabilizing role in Asia. But this will be possible only if they concentrate on solutions rather than on differences. And the fact that during the meeting the EU did not publicly engage China on the disputed South China Sea is a sign that the European bloc wants to prioritize cooperation with the Chinese dragon rather than antagonism at this juncture.

The problem is that Sino-European ties have so far been marred by disputes over bilateral trade and investment issues. If this rift were to get much deeper, it could prevent Brussels and Beijing from joining forces in conflict management and resolution initiatives.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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