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The liberal international order as conceptualised, conceived, and launched by the Western powers in the 19th and 20th centuries has undergone massive mutations, compelling countries and regions across the world to find ways to cope with the growing strategic uncertainties. The solution to these problems is still evasive, the chances of which get even bleaker with differing perceptions of the international order and the role of the West.

Assessing the role that Europe and Africa could play in shaping the global order, Theodore Murphy argues, “Many African leaders were left cold by European attempts to frame Russia’s actions as a threat to the global order since they felt it was effectively the Western order that was under attack.” Murphy argues that any alignment would “need to go beyond greater inclusion and address real points of difference,” touching on the question of values.

Certainly not all regions — and consequently regional blocs — are built the same, though there have been attempts to do so i.e., the African Union differs from the European Union (EU) as the EU differs from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). What was written about Europe and Africa could easily be written about Europe and Asia. For instance, both the EU and ASEAN have traversed different pathways despite being established during the Cold War and facing some common geo-political, security and economic challenges.

Asia is not one, but so is Europe — albeit to a lesser extent. This is reflected in the manner these two groups created their institutions, and organised and governed them. It is also reflected in how they address issues that they have in common. Hence why, similar attempts in post-1945 to establish mirror security organisations i.e., North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), experienced different ends. Hence also why, their approach towards China differs, though only slightly.

The differing development trajectories of these organisations are a by-product of different historical experiences, cultures and values. These differences are almost always overlooked by the West, who are themselves snared in the belief that their Western values are universal, or at least should be. Unsurprisingly, the responses in Africa and Asia towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may seem confounding to them.

Notwithstanding, while some states have endeavoured to take on a more confrontational approach towards both Russia and China, Europe on the other hand has taken a more measured response. The EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific is a holistic approach of engagement which aims to address the issues of concern in a manner that acknowledges the sensibilities that pervade here.

In promoting a multilateral and inclusive approach towards boosting trade and investment to encouraging economic openness and a sustainable approach to connectivity as well as addressing climate change issues, the EU is adhering to the ASEAN way. No wonder that it bears some similarities with ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

This is reflected best in its approach towards China. While some are creating rival blocs or forcing countries to take sides, the EU is focused more on deepening cooperation. More importantly, the EU has not only adopted the ASEAN way but has also placed ASEAN at the heart of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. This is inevitable considering ASEAN’s position at the centre of this region, but also because ASEAN offers a legitimate and acceptable pathway of engagement that has few alternatives or is riddled with too much suspicion.

The devil, however, is often in the details and it will be interesting to see how it implements its strategy aimed at securing maritime security. The EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership and its plan of action offer us more details but only just. Though, what comes to the fore, is a constructive engagement that is more consultative in nature. This includes engagement with ASEAN-centric regional security arrangements like the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-plus) and ASEAN-EU High-Level Dialogue on Maritime Security Cooperation.

Cooperation goes beyond the conventional security areas. In combating terrorism, transnational crimes, and other non-traditional security issues, the EU is addressing issues that are closer to the heart of ASEAN, than playing into the great power competition that seems to hog headlines. Disarmament and non-proliferation issues are certainly important too. No corner in the world is safe from a nuclear war, but in Southeast Asia, the threat is felt more distant than those in Eastern Europe for instance i.e., Ukraine.

Now that the rest of the world is spoilt for choice, having India, China, South Africa and even Brazil as options to choose from, only a few are solely reliant on the West (read: US and Europe) as their moral compass. To its credit, the EU is not perceived as a military superpower in the same way as the US is. Under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the EU’s military missions have mainly been confined to peacekeeping operations, conflict prevention and strengthening international security.

The EU is seen more as a political and economic superpower and this remains its USP. Focusing on the rules rather than the actor has been a defining feature of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. So long as the EU pursues economic openness and development assistance, the acceptability of its emergence as the potential “third way” will remain high. This, to some respect, enhances the EU’s image as a trusted broker in this region.

In the 2021 State of Southeast Asia survey, respondents rated the EU, followed by Japan, as its most preferred and trusted strategic partner. This may also lend credence to its attempts to be a security option for the countries in Southeast Asia, and consequently a viable security partner in this region; achieved amazingly not by forcing others to align their values to the EU, but by accommodating the values of others.


Dr Rahul Mishra is Director, Centre for ASEAN Regionalism Universiti Malaya (CARUM), and Coordinator, European Studies Programme, Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Malaysia. He tweets @rahulmishr_;

Peter Brian M Wang has held various positions in the Malaysian government, primarily at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). He is currently attached with the National Institute of Public Administration (INTAN), where he lectures and undertakes research on economic and international-relations policy. He is working on his PhD at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya. He tweets @PBMWang. 

Article was first published at CNN News18 on Dec 15, 2022.

Last Update: 23/12/2022