In an era where global forces and interactions now form a critical part of diplomacy and national security for all major and emerging powers, the need for rehabilitated engagement of the Asia-Pacific is only emboldened. Apart from containing the Chinese and Indian powerhouses, in the next decades the region will have a key influence in decisions concerning the global governance of climate change and environmental pollution, as well as combating transnational threats such as disease, smuggling and migration. Its waterways are also critical in terms of both economic and energy security. This means that being strongly and proactively involved in the region is just as critical to the EU as it is to the US.
Crucial to our consideration of the US’s renewed interest in the Asia-Pacific is how that region’s largest rising powers regard the international system and their place within it. Here, both China and India share the same vision of an emergent multipolar world. Underpinned by the use of selective, multiple and, importantly, simultaneous bilateral (and potential trilateral) strategic partnerships, this order commonly consists of the US, the EU, China, India and Russia. Within such a global makeup, the emphasis rests much more upon cooperation and co-dependence than dichotomy or schism, and upon economic and soft power rather than military balances of power and materiel.
Consider: while the US military presence in Asia is well documented, the US track record of multilateral engagement is patchy. Take the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) for example. Formed in 1954, and consisting of a patchwork of states that included (among others) France, Pakistan and Australia, it failed to thrive primarily through a lack of shared cultural background, collective identity and common aim – facets that have proved historically critical to the formation of both the EU and NATO. More widely, regional engagement in the Asia-Pacific has been most successful through economic regimes as they are more transparent, with clearer gains and reduced risks. Because of this, the emergence of a multilateral security regime in Asia-Pacific that is comparable to NATO appears unlikely in the coming decades.
While it may appear troublesome for the EU and NATO to hear of Hillary Clinton’s discussion of “America’s Pacific Century”, it’s important to note the EU has itself been gradually developing closer relations with the Asia-Pacific. It has Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Asia-Pacific powers such as South Korea, Chile and Mexico and is currently negotiating further regional agreements with ASEAN, Canada, India, Malaysia and Singapore. In 1996, it also instituted the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which now meets biannually to discuss issues pertaining to political dialogue, education and culture, and most critically, international security and economic cooperation. Here the US and the EU are intertwined as they both seek further Asia-Pacific engagement in order to bolster their strategic interests through the diversification of their global interactions.
Overall, increasing engagement by both the US and the EU in the Asia-Pacific regions highlights how both entities essentially face the same challenge. Although the US can claim to be part of the region through its geography, spurs towards regional multilateral regimes will come almost solely from the region’s emerging great powers. Moreover, regional security regimes will be led by those in the region and be based upon norms that originate within the region, having important repercussions on debates concerning human rights and democracy but also critically economic development. Dependent upon how virulent the coming economic pandemic becomes, Asia’s influence will only rise in the coming decades, and the US and the EU will need to engage more with her in order to protect their interests. This engagement is reflective of an emerging multipolar world where state interests are currently being re-balanced as the global system is gradually re-ordered. Protecting and sustaining strong EU-US relations will be as much a part of this embryonic architecture as stronger US-Asia or EU-Asia ties.
Chris Ogden is Lecturer in Asian Security at the University of St Andrews. His research interests concern the relationship between national identity, security and domestic politics in East Asia (primarily China) and South Asia (primarily India), as well as the analytical uses of social psychology in International Relations.