Perspective view of national flags of Southeast asia countries, AEC, ASEAN Economic Community (Photo by OPgrapher from Shutterstock).

by Simone Galimberti

It took longer than it should have been for the Europeans to realize that support for Ukraine and the work done by the West against Russian aggression could not be taken for granted.

But as a different (an unpleasant) reality started to emerge, the European Union (EU) and its member states had to rush to find ways to better engage the world and catch up with Russia’s expansive diplomatic outreach.

In June last year, some thinking on how to do so started getting shaped when the Foreign Affairs Council met to discuss the geopolitical consequences of Russia’s invasion.

Fast forward (let’s not forget that nothing is nor quick nor fast in the way the EU works and takes decisions) to Monday this week, the foreign ministers of the EU met for another of their meetings.

On the agenda were, once again, ways to sway major nations around the world and build closer relations with them.

What had been informally discussed last June is turning into a new major strategic approach entitled “EU Action Plan on the geopolitical consequences of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine on third countries.

From what we can understand from some leakages that appeared on Politico Europe and on Euractiv, the focus is going to be on four specific nations, Brazil and Chile in Latin America, Nigeria in Africa and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

There are obvious reasons for building stronger relationships with these nations especially Latin America, a region that the EU, despite strong cultural and economic relations with it, has been neglecting for quite a long time.

It is also clear the focus on Nigeria, together with Angola, the leading oil producer in the African continent, while, in relation to Kazakhstan, the EU is hoping to take advantage of the region’s weariness towards Moscow’s attitudes and postures.

Let’s not forget that Central Asia, where the EU has been investing considerable political capital trying to step up its game in Central Asia in the last few years, building on 30 years of diplomatic relations whose anniversary was celebrated back in 2021.

Yet what surprised me the most is that whatever has been leaked, lacks a focus on South East Asia, a key geopolitical region for Europe.

It should not be this way, especially because ASEAN, the regional mechanism bringing together the countries of the region, despite its limitations (it is, after all, a regional cooperation mechanism rather than a tool for integration, let’s not forget this), is a relevant player.

If you think about it, it is quite odd because, at par with Central Asia, South East Asia has become a priority area for the EU, especially following the publication of the EU Indo-Pacific strategy, formally the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

The EU Delegation to ASEAN, an embassy in all the effects, has also been very active in the last few years and the depth of cooperation at all levels, including people to people, got increasingly boosted.

Yet key countries like Malaysia and Indonesia did not emerge with an action plan on how to counter the geopolitical consequences of the Russian invasion.

Because a final document has not been released yet, then there is a time window for the EU to rectify such exclusion.

Though the central tenant of the new document is going to be on ways to counter Russia’s influence while boosting economic and other types of relationships with key countries around the world, it is essential to broaden the attention beyond Central Asia.

Considering the links between the current situation in Ukraine and the geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea and with the EU struggling to find a more united posture towards China, it is paramount to include the ASEAN nations in the upcoming Action Plan.

Malaysia and Indonesia are the two engines for promoting stronger South East Asia cooperation.

Both of them have strategic relationships with China and both of them, despite their restrained response, dislike what’s going on in Ukraine.

At the same time, they are not easily swayed.

Both proudly boast a strong sense of national pride and a past of brutal colonization reflected in an independent approach to foreign affairs that values international cooperation while standing on their own footing.

Moreover, both are rising economies with a certain amount of ambition that, at least inspirationally, goes beyond their neighbourhood.

In short, it won’t be easy for the EU to meaningfully include them as a priority in their new strategic action plan to counter the consequences of Russia’s invasion.

Yet it is indispensable to try doing so also because, despite their strong connections with China, they both have concerns and issues with Beijing.

They are happy to trade and boost their economic relations with China, but at the same time, they are aware of its ever-expanding power and ambitions.

While they are keen to downplay such irritants, they know they have to stay alert as well while forging ahead stronger relationships with them.

This is one more reason for the EU to even double down on the political capital, it has spent so far with South East Asia, especially at a time when Europeans are trying to find some new convergence on how to deal with Beijing.

While Malaysia and Indonesia might publicly dislike and even rebuke the news that the EU is willing to step up its naval presence in the South China Sea despite the ongoing confusion on China, they might tacitly consent to this development with much fuss.

But more actions at the highest levels must follow.

If the EU really wants to play a bigger role, the comprehensive array of initiatives with ASEAN won’t suffice.

The EU Delegation to ASEAN can only do so much no matter the new cooperation projects being launched.

With a new crop of EU Ambassadors being appointed to the region with changes in the EU Delegation to ASEAN itself, to Vietnam, to Indonesia and Vietnam as well, it is high time the EU brought an even more ambitious approach to the ways it deals with South East Asia.

First of all, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, must appoint a Special Representative to the region.

Such a Special Representative should coordinate with the recently appointed EU Special Envoy on the Indo-Pacific, Richard Tibbels, who has been recently visiting the region.

South East Asia is way too important to remain without a dedicated high-level figure, possibly a former head of state or former foreign minister, that could directly liaise with Mr Borrell.

The EU needs to give a strong signal that ASEAN matters.

That’s why it is going to be paramount for the EU to be more present at the highest levels of its political leadership and they should not wait for the upcoming ASEAN Summit in Indonesia to show up.

Turn by turn, Mr Borrell, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, Charles Michel, President of the European Council and even Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament, should pay a visit to the region.

Only such type of high-level visits will show that the EU truly puts South East Asia at the centre of a new European geopolitical ambition.

Simone Galimberti is a writer who specialises in democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.

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