Author: Basil C Bitas, Singapore
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has led to an increased focus on the Indo-Pacific region. Development initiatives, including the BRI, the United States’ BUILD Act and the EU Global Gateway, have all been accompanied by security-oriented policies and initiatives. The ongoing geostrategic competition in the region will have major implications for the future balance of global power.
The United States and China have been competing for geostrategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific, leading the EU to leverage the resulting geopolitical gaps and opportunities. China has adopted a forward-leaning posture in the South China Sea while the United States has led the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the AUKUS arrangement. EU member states have sought to enhance their naval presence through the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
ASEAN has emerged as an astute regional player and potential beneficiary of great power development initiatives, with its interests aligning with the European Union on the creation of a stable, open and neutral space. Accordingly there is scope for ASEAN and the EU to pool their strengths in a constructive manner.
The BRI and the US Indo-Pacific strategy are dual-use initiatives, encompassing both economic development and geostrategic dimensions. In a crowded Indo-Pacific theatre, how will Europe’s soft power earn it a seat at the table as an honest broker?
The current great power infrastructure competition has been framed as one of disparate values and approaches. Section 1411 of the BUILD Act specifically aims to ‘provide countries a robust alternative to state-directed investments by authoritarian governments’. The text does not take account of ongoing Chinese efforts to promote greater transparency, financial viability and sustainability in the planning and execution of BRI projects. With the BRI, the BUILD Act and the Global Gateway in play, the current task is to harness their unique attributes to promote regional development while mitigating the underlying ideological frictions.
To cement its position as a moderating force amid China–US rivalry, the European Union’s obvious partner is ASEAN, which is also seen in many quarters as an honest broker whose development goals dovetail with those of the EU. The two groupings also have complementary experiences and approaches to integration and security.
The EU supra-national model has used law as the primary lever for promoting integration. ASEAN’s state-centric approach has focused on consensus to promote a more organic form of economic integration even as it displays increasing recourse to normative, rules-based instruments. The EU brings years of managing great power politics, participating in a balance of power that has promoted stability in Europe and opened the way to explosive economic growth.
ASEAN brings essential local knowledge in managing disparate cultural dimensions and latent border disputes to promote a stable regional identity. Despite disparate perceptions of national interest among certain member states in response to escalating China–US competition, ASEAN continues to pursue its overriding organisational goals of regional ‘centrality’ and balanced economic development.
The possibility of a type of ‘stability compact’ — building on the EU–ASEAN Strategic Partnership of 2020 — exists. Such an understanding would entail the pursuit of openness, development and modernity. But it must be supported by a meaningful financial contribution from the EU that goes beyond existing foreign direct investment and official development assistance commitments. The EU will have to assess whether its initial Global Gateway sum of US$343 million will be sufficient to transform noble aspirations into concrete realisation.
The Global Gateway offers a framework for deploying resources in a focused manner, giving the EU a unitary development identity in the Indo-Pacific. The Global Gateway could become somewhat analogous to the BRI by providing a ‘branded’ umbrella for EU infrastructure projects in the region. Specifically, EU expertise in environmental and sustainability issues could form the basis of a ‘green’ partnership consistent with both regional development goals and the general aims of the European Fund for Sustainable Development.
The melding of the EU’s external resources and ASEAN’s regional knowledge presents a salutary, cooperative paradigm to a region fraught with great power competition. European soft power hardened with financial resources and targeted expertise — and buttressed by an operational partnership with ASEAN — defines a forward-looking vision for managing regional development amid strategic competition.
Success will come down to how two of the world’s most successful regional groupings leverage diplomatic will and applied resources. Due to their historical trajectories, ASEAN and the EU are acutely aware of both the promise and peril of history’s turning points.
Basil C Bitas is Member of the Bars of New York State and Washington, DC. He is Editor of ASEAN and the Belt and Road Initiative: Connectivity through Law and Commerce, Academy Publishing, Singapore Academy of Law, 2021.
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