Bridging the gap: To become partners, Europe and Asia need a better understanding of each other

Marc Saxer explores the controversial debate over the appropriate answer to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has laid open a disconnect between the West and many countries in the Global South.

The Russian war in Ukraine has upended the European security order. Its economic shockwaves - from rising food and energy prices –has been felt around the globe. The controversial debate over the appropriate answer to this violation of international law has laid open a disconnect between the West and many countries in the Global South. The intensified competition between China and the United States, highlighted by the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan, is a sign of things to come. After the end of the unipolar moment, great powers have begun to jockey for position in the new world order.

This was more than enough food for thought for a week-long visit of senior experts from 12 Asian countries and their counterparts in Brussels and Berlin. The candid, open and constructive exchange between and among Asians and Europeans was testament to this moment at the historical crossroads. There is an urge for strategic conversation. But for that to happen, the strategic disconnect first needs to be addressed.

On the surface, there is lots of agreement. All sides want to uphold the rule-based international order, and bemoan violations of international law and universal principles. No-one wants a new Cold War. The emergence of binaries, bipolarity and blocs is widely rejected. There is an aversion against choosing sides in general and decoupling in particular. There is also a great willingness to work together to ensure the rule-based international order that all sides cherish for its contribution to security and development is upheld.  Strategic convergence all around, or so it seems.

It is under this surface of superficial agreement that the cracks start to show. To the great disappointment of the Europeans, some Asian member states abstained, while others voted against the UN General Assembly Resolutions A/ES-11/L.4 (Suspension of the rights of membership of the Russian Federation to the Human Rights Council from April 7, 2022) and A/EA-11/ L.5 (Territorial integrity of Ukraine: defending the principles of the Charta of the United Nations from October12, 2022). Contrary to European perceptions, as participants pointed out, these votes did not indicate ignorance of or even support for the Russian violation of the principles of the UN Charter. They did, however, reflect the varied geographic exposure, different historical, political and economic relationships or diverging national interests of these member states. The European disregard for these strategic postures may actually be the reason why some of the decades-old putative strategic partnerships failed to deliver when put to their very first test. Or, to put it more positively, to make strategic partnerships work, the gaps between different strategic cultures, threat assessments, national interests and geopolitical postures has to be bridged.

A similar disconnect emerged over our dialogue programme, with a view to the differing threat perceptions in the Indo-Pacific region. In particular, there was a variety of assessments of the risk of a violent escalation of the strategic competition over Taiwan. Most participants pointed out that under the “One China Policy”, most Asian and Western countries alike recognize Taiwan as an inseparable part of the PR of China.  Analogies to the Russian invasion of the sovereign state of Ukraine and the annexation of parts its territory to the situation in Taiwan were therefore widely rejected. There was, however, disagreement over the appropriate response should China attempt to bring about “reunification” by force. This notwithstanding, there is very little appetite to be dragged into any hot conflict in the region.  

This points to another disconnect between threat perceptions in Europe and Asia. While Europeans increasingly voice concerns over the rise of an internally authoritarian and externally aggressive China, some Asian participants rejected this notion. Most participants pointed out that China is the key to their economic development and prosperity, while the US remain the indispensable provider of security. Hence, neither the US nor China are perceived as a threat, but rather the intensifying strategic competition between them. The unwillingness to take sides is, on the other hand, shared by many Europeans. This could offer an opportunity for greater convergence.

While Europeans and Asians tend to agree in their rejections of blocs and bipolarity, there is a disconnect over binaries. Many Europeans, not least in Germany, view the increasing competition between great powers as a systemic rivalry between democracies and autocracies. Accordingly, there are policymakers who seek greater cooperation with “value partners” and assume a more “robust” posture. These binaries are widely rejected in Asia. For the potential “value partners”, the promotion of democracy plays a second fiddle to overriding geopolitical and geo-economic concerns. Forming an “alliance of democracies” to check the influence of an “axis of autocrats”, on the other hand, risks alienating potential partners needed to combat global challenges from climate change to pandemics to the defence of the rules-based multilateral order. Unsurprisingly, the US had to make many concessions putting together the invitation list for its Summit of Democracy. Thus, even in the West, critics now believe this attempt towards binaries has done more harm than good. Europeans should therefore not be surprised when their Asian partners give their values-based foreign policy the cold shoulder. Many participants strongly expressed the need for a European engagement that does not aggravate binaries but reduces tensions by underlining commonalities and areas of cooperation.

The core common interest between Asia and Europe is to safeguard the rules-based multilateral order. However, there is a disconnect over what such a rules-based international order actually entails. Europeans tend to highlight the need to uphold the “liberal world order” with an emphasis on democracy and human rights at its core. There are still many who seek to defend and expand the mandate of multilateral institutions such as the International Criminal Court or the Human Rights Council, and make good on the promises of the Responsibility to Protect, a commitment adopted at the 2005 UN World Summit. In Asia, the prevalent understanding of the rules-based order is Westphalian, with an emphasis of the principles of sovereignty, non-interference, territorial integrity, and peaceful conflict resolution. These principles often overlap and are enshrined in the UN Charter as well as other key documents of international law such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the Geneva Conventions. As the decades of controversies over “humanitarian interventions” shows, they can also be in conflict. And as the war in Ukraine shows, some Asian member states are more willing to bear the political and economic cost to defend the Westphalian principles of the UN Charter, and more hesitant to compromise on their sovereignty to stand up for the liberal values of democracy and human rights. On the contrary, there is a strong belief that it is the very principle of non-interference that made ASEAN into the central platform of conflict resolution and cooperation in Asia.   

Europeans need to understand that the larger and smaller powers in Asia follow different strategic postures. Some have decided to bet on a development dividend by band-wagoning China’s rise. Others, by contrast, are actively trying to balance their engagements with China and with the US. Many follow the middle path of hedging the risks while reaping the benefits. Depending on this strategic posture, the attitude towards European engagement in the region varies significantly. While European economic, cultural and political engagement is welcomed across the board, European security is received warmly by some, and sceptically by others. Europeans needs to be aware that invitations to assume a greater security footprint in the region are motivated by the need to enlist allies in the balancing act vis-à-vis China. On the other hand, those who are hedging the risk of confrontation are allergic to any activities that may escalate existing tensions. There was a perception in the group that German policy-makers in particular were acutely aware of the calls for greater security engagement, but tend to overlook that the reception was decidedly more lukewarm by others.

All of these differing postures are deeply rooted in cultural values, political traditions and strategic cultures. It is therefore not an easy task to bridge the gaps between Asia and Europe. There is, however, an urgent need for Europeans and Asians to work together to keep geopolitical competition from spinning out of control, and keep the opportunity structures for economic development in place. Strategic convergence is driven by the critical reliance of both regions on open markets and functioning supply chains, and the strong will to safeguard the rules-based multilateral order that makes economic cooperation possible. To bring this strategic cooperation to fruition, however, the strategic disconnects outlined above need to be addressed.

Marc Saxer is the managing director of the FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. He previously served as the head of the Asia Department at FES Berlin and director of the FES India and Thailand Offices.

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