Donald Tusk, president of the European Council which defines the EU's overall political direction and priorities will attend the East Asia Summit next week in the Philippines. While the EU won't be part of summit talks, Tusk's presence may be a major step toward greater EU involvement in the region. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The European Union, the oldest partner of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has been excluded from next week’s leaders-only East Asia Summit.

Its absence from the forum, which brings together leaders of the 10 ASEAN members, plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the US — ASEAN’s six most important partners — led to the view that the EU, the world’s most advanced regional grouping, was irrelevant to Asian affairs.

But Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has been invited to attend this year’s gathering, which will be held next Monday and Tuesday at Clark Airbase in Subic Bay, the Philippines.

Tusk will come as a guest of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, currently the ASEAN’s rotating chair, but his presence is noteworthy as it may present a major step toward a greater EU involvement in the region.

Keen interest in the summit shows its relevance

Some may argue that, like other ASEAN-led initiatives, the summit is merely a “talk shop.” But the fact that leaders of regional and global powers enthusiastically attend the summit is clearly indicative of its relevance.

Among the EAS’s 18 participants, eight are part of the G-20, three belong to the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa —and three are from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

President Barack Obama, the first US leader to take part in the EAS in 2011, missed it only once afterward – in Brunei, in October 2013 — due to a US government shutdown at that time.

His successor, Donald Trump, who dislikes multilateral settings, at first chose to skip this year’s gathering, but after many foreign-policy experts warned that his truancy could greatly damage US interests, he decided to extend his Asia trip by one day to join the summit, calling it “the most important day.”

The EAS is increasingly gaining prominence because it is the only occasion where regional leaders formally gather to discuss the major issues facing the region.

The EAS is increasingly gaining prominence because it is the only occasion where regional leaders formally gather to discuss the major issues facing the region — including pressing, complex and sensitive security matters, such as North Korea’s nuclear program and the South China Sea.

What’s more, in Asia’s international politics, where appearance often triumphs over substance, showing up at the region’s multilateral fora, such as the EAS, is essential.

These are the reasons why, as it is understood, the EU has strongly lobbied to be present at the summit. This, coupled with the fact that ASEAN has finally decided to extend an invitation to the EU, shows that both the regional organizations now somehow want the latter to engage more meaningfully in Asia’s security affairs.

In fact, in recent years, the EU and some of its major member states have sought to become relevant to Asian security and made significant efforts to enhance that. For instance, European leaders and high-ranking security officials, including Federica Mogherini, the EU’s leading diplomat, and defense ministers of some EU member states, have attended the Singapore-based Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), Asia’s largest defense conference.

In her speech to the SLD in 2015, Mogherini, high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and vice-president of the European Commission, urged Asian countries not to look at the 28-member grouping “just as a big free-trade area” but also “a foreign policy community, a security and defence provider.”

EU not seen as a key security partner in Asia

Yet, in Asia, the EU is still primarily seen as a major trading partner, not a key security player. There are many reasons for this.

The EU was long depicted as a “security dwarf” as, collectively, it lacked military capabilities. This, by and large, remains true today. In a region, that is still facing major traditional security problems, such as territorial disputes, and where international politics is still primarily viewed and approached in realist terms, it is not surprising that, though an economic giant, the EU is rarely taken as a serious security partner in Asia.

In her 2015 SLD address, Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, singled out terrorism and violent extremism as major security challenges. Still, she didn’t directly mention the South China Sea at all even though the maritime dispute was probably the region’s most concerning issue at the time.

The differences are also manifested in that the EU considers the promotion of human rights and democracy as a key aspect of its foreign policy and seeks to link security, trade, development aid and human rights, while many ASEAN countries don’t perceive and approach internal and external affairs in such a manner.

Another major reason is geographical distance and geo-strategic importance. For instance, as reflected in its 2016 global strategy, Asia does not feature prominently in the EU’s security priorities — ranking far behind Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa.

Divergent views on the South China Sea ruling

Moreover, whilst the EU can speak and act with a single voice in trade, it is difficult for it to do so in other foreign and security matters. This likewise applies to ASEAN, where its membership is even more diverse than that of the EU. That the members of both the regional groupings adopted divergent views vis-à-vis the Hague-based Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea dispute is a case in point.

Nonetheless, Donald Tusk’s appearance at this year’s EAS is a positive development. It can become a precedent for the EU to be regularly invited to — or possibly, to become a member of — the summit if the EU and ASEAN eventually elevate their partnership to a strategic level. All of this will enhance the EU’s long-neglected relevance in one of the world’s most strategically and economically vital regions.

The EU could hugely contribute to Asia’s security and prosperity, should it succeed in convincing its Asian partners, notably ASEAN and China, to adopt a rules-based regional and global order, which it fervently champions.

For many, promoting and achieving a rules-based maritime order is arguably the ideal and long-lasting solution to the complex South China Sea dispute.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.