The ‘Zeitenwende’ and resetting Europe-Asia Relations

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been seen by the West, in particular in Europe, as a threat to its conception of the world order. But this view is not shared in Asia-Pacific, where the assessment is more nuanced. Imposing a binary response of with-us-or-against-us on countries in the region ignores their own geopolitical realities, and risks alienating them.

The war in Ukraine has focussed attentions on many aspects of the global order and multilateralism. The return of war to Europe was a Zeitenwende, or historic turning point, for Germany and the rest of Europe, challenging the dominant belief that economic cooperation produces a positive political dividend between states, even between not-so-friendly countries.

The following are the reflections on the discussions between the the FES Asia Strategic Foresight Group delegation and the thought leaders and decision-makers they met in Brussels and Berlin in October, to discuss latest geopolitical issues and ways forward for Europe-Asia collaboration.

The shock and awe in Europe and the West at the invasion of Ukraine did not elicit the same sense of danger globally, and not in the Asia-Pacific.  A more significant concern for the Asia-Pacific is the American-led narrative of a binary option with respect to Russia, pitting democracies against autocracies. Such discussion is not conducive to engaging the Asian countries. The political disconnect further reflects the dissimilarity of the strategic landscapes in Europe and Asia. Each region has a large dominant country, Russia and China, respectively, that influences the political, economic and security dimensions of the relationships. Compounding the economic engagement is the security challenge of shared borders for several countries in each case.

The lukewarm response from the Asia-Pacific was a wake-up call to the West including Europe that all countries do not share the same understanding about the war in Europe, or the same vision of the selective defence according to the UN Charter. The conflict showed that value-based diplomacy works in the absence of conflict and interest-based diplomacy works best during conflict, thus drawing attention to a messy multilateralism where enforcement is partial and selective.

The need to avoid creating a binary response to the war, and to other global issues, is vital as forcing countries to choose a side is producing greater division. A values-based contestation of the violation of international law and order in Europe does not resonate in the Asia-Pacific, given the neglect of many wars in Asia and Africa. Such framing does not reflect the geopolitical reality as observed from Asia, and also shows how proximity to the crisis has led European actors to fail to take into consideration the complex bilateral relations of other countries with Russia, or the geo-economic dependence and the geopolitical weight of China in the Asia-Pacific.

The need for more strategic communication and inclusive dialogue was seen as crucial to creating a better understanding of the geopolitical challenges on both sides. Similarly, Asia-Pacific is too large to be treated as a homogenous space. The pandemic-induced economic stress, the war in Europe and the growing geopolitical tension in Asia-Pacific have produced a new opportunity for engagement, provided that Europe and the rest of the West understand the vulnerabilities of the different Asian countries. Building new points of consensus, or at least convergence, on matters of global public goods such as health, climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, offers a way forward to renew cooperation.

The political, economic and security disruption in Europe as a consequence of the Ukraine war, and the political uncertainty in relation to Russia, along with the growing Chinese power, are creating new geopolitical and geo-economic compulsions. Although the contours of the post-war European order and its relations with the rest of the world cannot be predicted, these two developments are leading to many Asia-Pacific countries to reassess their foreign policy relations.

The threat assessments in Europe and Asia are very different and so the natures of cooperation and engagement is also distinct. While there is very little appetite in Brussels to engage with conflicts in other regions, there is a very differentiated view of China in Asia that cannot be reduced to a binary. Consequently, security arrangements in both regions are vastly different and this creates dissimilar outcomes and global engagements. As the power equations shift in the Asia-Pacific, how the EU will engage with and contribute to them becomes crucial as it cannot simply impose a Western idea of global solidarity. Recent developments have revealed that different Asian partners will respond with distinctive efforts to find some balance, hedge their options, or jump on a bandwagon, depending on what interests they seek to defend in their bilateral relations in and beyond the region. Strengthening multilateralism requires strategic communication on both sides to go beyond narrow perceptions and engage the interests to reset the relations between European and Asian countries.

Ummu Salma Bava is a Professor and Jean Monnet Chair at the Centre for European Studies of the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. She is also a member of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Asia Strategic Foresight Group, an interdisciplinary network of thought leaders from 20 countries in Asia and Europe.

The views in this article are not necessarily those of FES. 

FES Asia

Bringing together the work of our offices in the region, we provide you with the latest news on current debates, insightful research and innovative visual outputs on the future of work, geopolitics, gender justice, and social-ecological transformation.