Asia to Europe: We Need to Discuss Our Relationship
TOKYO/SINGAPORE— The diplomats at Tokyo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week were polite, but firm. Yes, Asians in general and the Japanese in particular would be most grateful (and frankly relieved) if Europe could bring itself to consider Asia as something more than just a huge business opportunity and, come to think of it, as more than China. As one official said carefully: “it’s a larger security environment.”
Indeed. It is hardly news that Europe has huge and growing trade and investment interests in Asia. The EU’s exports in goods to 16 Asian countries totaled €330 billion last year. A more disturbing insight, forced upon Asians as well as Americans in the course of the global financial crisis, is that progressive economic integration means mutual exposure to volatility and contagion. “If a sack of rice falls over in China…” is a much-used German expression for an incident of absolutely no consequence, the verbal equivalent of a shrug. That image no longer works. Today, if things get jittery in Europe, its trading partners feel the ground tremble under them swiftly. “Asia Buckles Under Europe Impact” ran the headline of a front-page story in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal, which noted that the European crisis was hitting Asia “in multiple ways including weak trade, volatile markets, and a cautious investment climate.”
Then again, dependency has its upsides. “Europe has to realize the degree of influence it has,” remarked another Japanese diplomat. “You successfully got China concerned!” But while Europe’s economic leverage is considerable (including as a threat of economic failure), Asians make it clear that they would like to see it develop a much more sophisticated understanding of the strategic and security issues on the region’s agenda. This, they note, would help them balance China’s increasing efforts to establish itself as the center of gravity by building a network of liberal and market-oriented countries with an interest in Asia. “But for that we need you to have a more precise image of the region.” Judging by European attendance at the weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, that picture remains rather blurry and unfocused.
EU participants: 2 (a civil servant and a German Green parliamentarian), speakers 0. France fielded its new defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, supported by a team of senior security mandarins. Le Drian told an appreciative audience that the period of “benign neglect” of Asia by Europe was over, and that France was building a set of strategic relationships in Asia that would be reflected in its new strategic defense review. The U.K.’s minister of state for the armed forces, Nick Harvey, likewise flanked by several of his ministry’s most senior policymakers, gave a pointed and much-debated speech about cybersecurity.
It did not actually mention the region or any specific country therein, but Harvey’s listeners understood his meaning perfectly. In contrast, Germany — arguably the most economically powerful European actor in Asia — came with a minimalist delegation, headed by parliamentary state secretary Christian Schmidt, who spoke on a panel about the importance of submarines for regional security. Not, on the whole, a lineup expressive of strategic cohesion and purpose or, for that matter, of any strategy. “If this were about the economy,” said one German observer, “our top people would all be here.” It may be time for Europeans to take some advice from Tokyo, and reconsider the basis of their relationship with Asia.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.