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European efforts to build up ASEAN as a strategic partner are thwarted by Beijing’s increasing economic and diplomatic influence on individual South East Asian governments.

Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, meets with Le Luong Minh, Secretary General of ASEAN, during her visit on 9 April 2016 to the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta.

In times of rising diplomatic tensions in the South China Sea, the European Union (EU) tries to bolster the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a counterweight to China in the region. To this end, the EU has offered generous financial support to foster the regional integration process and sponsor the still politically toothless ASEAN secretariat. It almost tripled previous financial commitments to 196 million EUR between 2014 and 2020.

At the recent 21st ASEAN-EU ministerial meeting in Thailand, the two country blocks announced a ”global partnership for shared strategic goals”. In this “Bangkok Declaration”, the EU and ASEAN pledge to increase their strategic cooperation in fields like maritime security and crisis mediation to complement existing dialogues on trade and commerce.

The EU’s strategic stakes in the region may not match those of the United States, who have strong military interests in Asia-Pacific. But European policy-makers are increasingly concerned about rising conflicts between the US and China in a region with high strategic importance for Europe’s trade with the whole of East Asia. The announcement to intensify inter-regional security co-operation with ASEAN is a testament to the EU’s commitment to multilateralism and regional integration as the model to contain tensions between states.

EU no longer a role model for integration

Defining shared strategic goals with ASEAN, however, remains a tricky task, especially since ASEAN’s member states have rarely achieved common policy positions on crucial strategic questions among themselves. Fostering integration and coordination among the politically, economically and culturally diverse 10 member states has been even harder than among the 28-strong EU which has long served as a role model in Southeast Asia for building an ‘ever closer’ economic and political union among sovereign states. As of late, however, the EU’s credibility has suffered considerably from the fallout of years of internal wrangles over the euro and refugee crises and, in particular, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the bloc.

The main obstacle to the EU’s efforts in South East Asia is that the truly influential powers in the region – the US and China – prioritize bilateral dealings with countries in the region over institutional cooperation with ASEAN. The rapid rise of China as a dominant regional power in particular has changed the rules of the game.

While Beijing has also worked with ASEAN as a whole on economic issues in the past, as was demonstrated by the conclusion of a China-ASEAN free-trade agreement which entered into force in 2010, the Chinese government today shows little interest in a politically united or even in a better coordinated regional bloc in what it considers its own backyard. Instead, Beijing has designated Southeast Asia as a key target region of its geopolitical ‘Silk Road’ initiative and is forcefully building up a network of privileged bilateral relations with individual member states – and is playing them off against one another with ever more success in order to prevent ASEAN from challenging Chinese territorial interests in Southeast Asia.

Beijing rewards loyalty to China

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s official visit to Cambodia, which took place while the EU-ASEAN ministerial meeting was being held in Bangkok, was a reminder of how difficult it is to strengthen ASEAN politically in the way the EU would like to do it. When Beijing ignored and openly challenged the award of an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague on the territorial dispute in the South China Sea in July, Cambodia vetoed a draft ASEAN declaration on China’s obvious breach of international law. In a gesture of gratitude, Xi now announced new investment deals and extended offers of financial aid to debt reduction to Cambodia, while praising the ‘loyal friendship’ between Phnom Penh and Beijing.

While Cambodia has been positioning itself as China’s closest ally in South East Asia since at least 2001, other ASEAN countries have recently sought their own kind of ‘privileged relationship’ with the PRC as well. In the traditionally US-aligned Philippines, President Duterte feels encouraged to wage his ferocious war on drug-traffickers after he won Beijing’s support. What is more, Duterte makes headlines by ranting over Washington’s alleged undue interference in the Philippines’ internal affairs while currying favour with Beijing. His announcement that he may even shelve the South China Sea ruling in the Philippines’ favour and solve territorial disputes with China bilaterally fits perfectly with Beijing’s foreign policy agenda.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s current military government has been eager to shed the country’s reputation as a ‘safe haven’ for Chinese emigrants and started to willingly repatriate alleged Chinese ‘terrorists’ and dissidents over the course of the past two years. Last but not least, Laos, which currently holds the rotating ASEAN presidency, is banking heavily on new infrastructure investments springing from the Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.

In view of this regional competition for favours from Beijing, strengthening the organisation’s joint foreign policy capacities seems to be a far-fetched goal for a European Union that is itself struggling to remain a meaningful foreign policy actor. At the same time, the EU has to use the means at its disposal to play a constructive role in this strategically and economically important region.