EU Ambassador-Designate to ASEAN Igor Driesmans in a file photo. Image: AHA Center / Facebook

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) relations with the European Union (EU) are in the spotlight as the world reacts to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

And no one has their finger on that diplomatic pulse more so than EU Ambassador to ASEAN Igor Driesmans, a veteran EU official whose responsibilities have spanned cultural diplomacy, transport and fisheries.

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with Asia Times’ correspondent Richard Javad Heydarian, Driesmans articulated his views on how the two blocs can come closer together and the challenges and risks of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Heydarian: How would you describe the overall state of EU-ASEAN relations? Does ASEAN matter and why?

Deiesmans: Our relations with ASEAN are long-standing and multifaceted.

This year, we jointly commemorate the 45th anniversary of the establishment of EU-ASEAN relations and will do so at all levels – from grassroots events such as bike rides and photo exhibitions to a commemorative summit in Brussels attended by ASEAN leaders and heads of governments of our 27 EU member States.

On substance, we are not only strategic partners but have more than 20 structured dialogues, contribute over 250 million euros of funding to ASEAN, and engage in concrete responses on a number of key issues, from green issues to connectivity and pandemic response – all of this is neatly summed up in our EU-ASEAN Blue Book, the latest version of which will be published on Europe Day (May 9).

The impression I have is that we are the most comprehensive strategic partner of ASEAN – even without this particular label. Looking ahead, I am confident that our leaders’ summit will lead to a number of tangible outcomes, which will provide a further boost to our future cooperation.

ASEAN does matter for the EU – we are natural partners, linked by our belief in the rules-based international order and multilateral solutions that lead to inclusive and effective cooperation. We want to see Southeast Asia maintain its stability and prosperity and throughout our 45 years of engagement with the region, ASEAN has proven that it is in a unique position to ensure this.

Heydarian: What are the greatest areas of growth in bilateral relations, which cooperative arrangements and proposals have proven most promising? Accordingly, what are areas of outstanding concern? What are key challenges in recent years and future?

Driesmans: Over the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on our populations and economies. Vaccines, of which the EU has been the biggest provider and exporter to Southeast Asia, have proven to play a decisive role and are paving the way towards gradual reopening and recovery of our two regions and indeed globally.

I believe that both for the EU and ASEAN, the biggest opportunity – but also a challenge that we cannot afford to ignore – is to ensure that we restore our links to the fullest possible extent but also build back in a sustainable manner.

A number of concrete initiatives are already in the pipeline – the Comprehensive Air Transportation Agreement, which we hope to sign later this year, will help to reconnect Europe and Southeast Asia, providing an engine for commerce, tourism, and enable better people-to-people links.

Our Green Team Europe Initiative with ASEAN, launched in November 2021 and initially backed by 30 million euros, will strengthen EU-ASEAN cooperation on a vast array of areas, including climate action, environmental and biodiversity protection, and clean energy transition.

On the South China Sea, the EU has remained a principled actor that does not take sides but at the same time never fails to mention the importance of rules-based order and international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. It is my belief – and I may be somewhat biased – that no other partner of ASEAN does more with ASEAN than we do.

France’s Landing Helicopter Deck (LHD) Mistral has transited the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo: Embassy of France

Heydarian: The EU and key member states have published their “Indo-Pacific” strategy policy/papers in recent years. What are the motivating factors? How important is the China factor?

Driesmans: The rationale for issuing our Indo-Pacific Strategy is a simple one – we want the wider region, with ASEAN at its core, to remain peaceful, stable and, in turn, prosperous. Some tend to argue that the EU is not an Indo-Pacific power and question our involvement in its affairs.

Our response is unequivocal – we have a major stake in ensuring that the story of the rise of the Indo-Pacific continues to be a positive one. In terms of economic relations, the Indo-Pacific is the second-largest destination of EU exports and home to four out of ten of our largest trading partners.

Our engagement with the region extends, however, far beyond mere economic interests. We are strategic partners, and in many cases also major development partners, of numerous countries in the region. We understand that no major issues of today – be it our efforts to stem the tide of the Covid-19 pandemic and to fight climate change – will not be possible without direct participation of the Indo-Pacific region.

The same logic applies to your region’s peace and stability, which has been more and more affected by geopolitical rivalry. The reverberations and ramifications of this intensified rivalry are being felt and closely observed – with no small degree of concern – well beyond your region.

Given its geopolitical and economic weight, China is mentioned in the strategy on multiple occasions but I do not see it as playing a key factor in our motivations for coming up with this document. Our strategy builds upon the EU’s extensive engagement in the region and our approach is both inclusive and flexible.

We are prepared to cooperate with all partners in the region that share the same objectives and stand ready to turn these shared principles, values and interests into concrete cooperation.

Heydarian: Obviously, the crisis in Ukraine is a huge source of concern, and the situation is very fluid. To what degree though the ongoing conflict and the Russia threat element can or can not affect EU strategy in Asia more broadly, particularly in ASEAN?

Driesmans: Russia’s actions go well beyond blatant disregard for international law.

Seeing a nuclear state attack its neighbor, issue threats to the international community, single-handedly overturn regional security order, engage in indiscriminate targeting of civilian infrastructure and despicable killings of civilians, and doing all of this using a fabricated pretext must send chills down the spines of leaders and citizens in any part of the world, not only in Southeast Asia. These developments cannot and must not be ignored.

Firefighters work on a fire on a building after Russian bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022, as Russian armed forces are trying to invade Ukraine from several directions using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian positions in the south. Photo: Fox News / Screengrab

As for the second part of your question, the EU continues to be a global player and while remaining focused on helping Ukraine, we are sufficiently equipped not to lose track of developments in other parts of the world, including in the Indo-Pacific. Global order, multilateralism, and international law must be defended and Russia’s actions in Ukraine show that might does not and can never make right.

ASEAN lies at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region and plays an important role in the EU’s Indo- Pacific Strategy. It contains very concrete proposals on how to ensure that ASEAN is not only central to the Indo-Pacific in purely geographic terms but remains so geo-strategically.

I am certain that in the near future, both the EU and ASEAN will give serious consideration to adopting a joint Indo-Pacific statement – not only as a political declaration, but also as a document that will identify concrete overlaps between our Strategy and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and underline our joint belief in multilateralism, global order and international law.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian