The ASEAN Studies Centre hosted the official launch of ASEAN-EU Partnership: The Untold Story, edited by Professor Tommy Koh and Dr Yeo Lay Hwee, followed by an engaging panel discussion on “The Future of ASEAN-EU Relations”.
ASEAN STUDIES CENTRE WEBINAR
Thursday, 15 October 2020 – The ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted the E-launch of ASEAN-EU Partnership: The Untold Story edited by Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Dr Yeo Lay Hwee, Director of the European Union Centre in Singapore. ASEAN-EU Partnership: The Untold Story attempts to explain the nature of ASEAN-EU relations with 18 essays covering national and regional perspectives. The Foreword is written by Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. The book covers the important and multi-faceted relationship between ASEAN and EU with contributors coming from all ten ASEAN countries. It highlights many areas where ASEAN and EU have convergent interests and also the few areas where views diverge. The book also looks to the future and suggests some possible areas of cooperation in the post-Covid-19 world.
In his welcome remarks at the E-Launch, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute Director, Mr Choi Shing Kwok said that the book was launched at an extraordinary time where the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated and exposed geopolitical fault-lines, presenting a severe stress test for multilateralism. As ASEAN and the EU are regarded as two of the most successful regional groupings in the world, the partnership has taken on deeper strategic meaning and a greater sense of urgency. Together, ASEAN and the EU can hold the middle ground for cooperation, uphold the rules-based international system and work harder for effective and meaningful multilateralism.
In his Keynote Address, Guest-of-Honour Mr Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Transport highlighted the EU and ASEAN’s longstanding relationship since 1977. In 2019, the European Union was the both third largest foreign investor and third largest trading partner with ASEAN. He added that ASEAN and EU can cooperate in three broad areas by protecting lives, safeguarding livelihoods and securing a common future. Warning both ASEAN and the EU against falling into a “singularity trap” described by Dr Yeo in the book as a single issue that may derail strategic engagement, Mr Chee urged ASEAN and the EU to accelerate discussions on an ASEAN-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (CATA) which will give a much-needed boost to critical sectors such as aviation and tourism. In addition, the two sides should also advance cooperation in new and emerging areas such as the development of a viable vaccine, digital connectivity, sustainability and climate change.
The official launch was followed by an engaging panel discussion featuring Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Barbara Plinkert, Ambassador, Delegation of the European Union to Singapore, Mr Chris Humphrey, Executive Director, EU-ASEAN Business Council in Singapore and Dr Yeo Lay Hwee, Director, The European Union Centre in Singapore. The discussion was moderated by Ms Sharon Seah, Coordinator, ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
During the panel discussion, Dr Yeo provided a quick overview of the book and noted that while the current relationship between ASEAN and the EU is truly comprehensive, encompassing cooperation and dialogue as spelled out by Mr Chee during his Keynote Address, there remains potential for the partnership to deepen further provided both sides continued to focus on the broader strategic picture. In an increasingly fragmented world triggered by the US-China strategic rivalry, it is ever more important for regional organisations like ASEAN and the EU to signal the importance of building an inclusive and multilateral rules-based order. Dr Yeo noted that all ASEAN member states have displayed a willingness to strengthen bilateral ties with the EU despite some normative differences. She highlighted issues that unite ASEAN and the EU in the post-Covid-19 world, such as improving pandemic preparedness, strengthening the resilience of supply chains, reviving the tourism and aviation industries, and developing sustainable development and climate change agendas.
Ambassador Plinkert spoke of the depth and breadth of the ASEAN-EU relations in the past four decades with a potential to develop into an even more far engaging enrichment. Starting with the dialogue partnership with ASEAN in 1977, the EU today is the second key investor and the third largest trading partner in ASEAN. Ambassador Plinkert highlighted the fundamentals that ASEAN and the EU jointly agreed on, including collaboration as the solution to massive challenges facing the world, and convergence of the rules that ASEAN and the EU together can make a difference in shaping the world order. Against this backdrop, she shared her thoughts on ASEAN-EU concrete collaboration at the bilateral and regional levels ranging from sustainability and digital issues to Covid-19 recovery. At the multilateral level, pressing issues that call for collaboration include vaccine multilateralism, free trade, climate change, digitalisation, and maritime security. As a like-minded partner, the EU has political, sustainability, and economic interests in ASEAN. This includes the strengthening of ASEAN internal integration through ASEAN community-building and ASEAN’s external position through ASEAN centrality. On sustainability, the EU has been supporting a number of climate projects in ASEAN, ranging from sustainable use of peatlands to sustainable forest management. The EU will contribute 50% of the €1.2 billion ASEAN Green Finance Catalytic Facility. On the economic front, the EU will continue supporting the ASEAN Economic Community through the ARISE Plus programme. Ambassador Plinkert reiterated that moving forward, ASEAN and the EU needed to double their efforts to conclude the ASEAN-EU FTA and work towards the finalisation of the CATA, and reaffirmed that the ASEAN-EU partnership was no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
Mr Humphrey opined that this book came at a critical time for ASEAN-EU relations going forward. Citing the EU-ASEAN Business Council’s recently published 2020 EU-ASEAN Business Sentiment Survey, Mr Humphrey noted that a majority of European businesses still view ASEAN as the region with the best economic opportunity. However, the outlook for European trade and investment in ASEAN has weakened as this proportion of respondents has decreased from 63% in 2019 to 53% in 2020. Additionally, only 25% of respondents perceived EU engagement to be on par with European business interests in ASEAN. Mr Humphrey discussed some bugbears of ASEAN-EU trade relations that are highlighted in the book, such as EU rice tariffs on Cambodia and Myanmar and the EU’s palm oil dispute with Indonesia and Malaysia. He believed that ASEAN should feature more highly on Brussels’ agenda and expressed that ASEAN and the EU should upgrade existing relations to a strategic partnership not only on the trade and investment front, but also in geopolitical, social and environmental aspects. Mr Humphrey urged ASEAN to show that it is willing and ready to engage with the EU as a cohesive bloc, without allowing bilateral issues to interfere with collective progress. As Singapore hands over the country coordinatorship for ASEAN-EU Dialogue Relations to the Philippines in 2021, greater and sustained effort from both sides will be needed to fully capture the benefits of the enduring ASEAN-EU relationship.
Professor Koh began by noting that the economies of ASEAN and EU are fundamentally complimentary, not competitive, and there are therefore many opportunities for European businesses in ASEAN. However, as pointed out by Mr Humphrey, this view is not reflected in Brussels’ priorities. Professor Koh cited the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey Report that highlighted the EU as ASEAN’s second most trusted major power after Japan. There exists a lot of goodwill in ASEAN for the EU, and the EU should take advantage of this advantageous position to expeditiously conclude the CATA and negotiate an ASEAN-EU FTA. He remarked that ASEAN’s track record of successfully negotiating existing FTAs such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) underscores the bloc’s ability to engage in effective negotiation, and the EU should not hesitate to pursue FTA negotiations with ASEAN. Professor Koh noted that negotiations would not be easy; however, he believed with political goodwill, every difficulty has a solution, but in the absence of goodwill, every solution has a difficulty. Lastly, he described ASEAN and the EU as champions of free trade, multilateralism, regional economic integration, and of a rules-based international system. He urged the EU and ASEAN to stand together to defend multilateralism and multilateral institutions around the world, such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, and the Paris Agreement.
During the Q&A discussion, issues such as the factors affecting a potential ASEAN-EU FTA, the lack of visibility of ASEAN within the EU, the impact of US-China rivalry on trade and raising ASEAN-EU relations to a strategic partnership level were touched on.
The book is available in bookshops island-wide. For more information, click here.