The high politics of/between two regionalisms

This article first appeared in a blog post at Ideas on Europe.

BUDAPEST — Since their mega-trade talks crumbled in the final years of the crisis-scarred 2000s, the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have powered through together with much more caution, though by no means less ambitiously.

Instead of a quixotic commercial compact that would conjoin two distant and diverse markets of roughly 18,5 trillion euros and one billion consumers, Brussels is forging piecemeal deals that it hopes to quilt altogether into a future region-to-region free trade agreement (FTA). The EU has already concluded proto-FTAs with Singapore and Vietnam, while bilateral negotiations are underway with Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

Now top dogs from the two regionalist clubs self-style themselves as ‘natural partners’‘committed multilateralists’, and most recently ‘partners in integration’. They also openly obsess about rejigging their relationship with a more strategic purpose. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s outgoing foreign affairs supremo, enthused that ‘through our cooperation we are showing in practice what it means to govern globalisation’ in a speech at the 22nd EU-Asean ministerial hob-nob in Bangkok, Thailand. 

These (re)articulations are of course not entirely platitudinal. Beyond trade, the EU engages with its Asean counterparts on multiple tiers and thematic areas, such as from showering beneficiaries with regional/national/substate development assistance to fostering the regionalisation of higher education mobility. Those bothered to get a bird’s eye view of these regionhood-building projects could leaf through the latest blue book put together by the EU Mission to Asean.

Unsurprisingly what thickets of glossy reports and political declarations conveniently sweep under the rug is this: awkward tensions lurk behind the sort of internationalism, or more precisely interregionalism, that the EU and Asean may want to chart politically. Coming to terms with these contradictions matters if both sides are to meaningfully reenergise their interregionalist aspirations.

Having said that, my aim is not to recite the entire pastiche of EU involvements and interests in Asean, but rather to problematise how their conflicting philosophies on international governance in a globalised world could strain, if not wreck, the prospects of closer political and economic cooperation as integrationist bodies.

Here, let us rely on Volker Rittberger’s definition of international governance as ‘the output of a non-hierarchical network of interlocking international (mostly, but not exclusively, governmental) institutions which regulate the behaviour of states and other international actors in different issue areas of world politics’. As such, I ignore on purpose other theories of governance, which rightly merit a separate treatment. For example, it is becoming more fashionable in public policy analysis to study how international organisations co-opt or orchestrate non-state intermediaries in pursuit of common global governance objectives (Abbott et al., 2015). Indeed, the EU itself is not impervious to this indirect governance practice. In an attempt to improve the business climate for EU small and medium enterprises overseas, the European Commission subcontracted a mandate to EU-oriented policy entrepreneurs to influence regulatory and policy reforms in certain Asean markets. 

In what follows, I sketch out a ‘cognitive map’ of overlapping international governance issues set to pester EU and Asean policymakers in the coming years. Among other things, this newly minted Ideas on Europe blog will inescapably return to these themes in succeeding commentaries in a departure from, and partly due to a rather personal exasperation with, the usual Sinocentric debates dominating most European academic fora vis-à-vis ‘Asia’ these days. Thanks to my training, I will colour my reading of these issue areas by way of public policy, political economy, international relations, or postcolonial perspectives.

When pigs fly

As ‘old’ regional orders driven by statist forces, the EU and Asean evolved within the bipolar context of the Cold War. However, neo-regionalists typically loathe tying both regionalisms to the same conceptual cart: the so-called Asean Way invokes ‘the process of regional cooperation and interaction based on discreteness, informality, consensus-building, and non-confrontational bargaining styles, which are often contrasted with the adversarial posturing, majority vote, and other legalistic decision-making procedures in western multilateral negotiations’ (Acharya 2001, p. 64).

Far from being a meaningless abstraction, Asean’s penchant for what Acharya (2004) calls organisational minimalism and informal non-legalistic approaches to cooperation neatly captures the region’s underlying ideological coordinates: the sanctity of state sovereignty and noninterference — a self-defensive reaction to the shared trauma of Southeast Asia’s colonial pasts. Here, we immediately run into an apparent paradox: Asean articulates the Westphalian notion of modern nation-states to repel any European ‘meddlesomeness’, either perceived or real.  Do we not precisely see these antagonisms in commerce-building efforts between the two clubs? It is at once crucial to direct our gaze to northern free trade-ism not least because the EU is an elephantine economic integration enterprise able and willing to pry open foreign markets, most of which are in the Global South.

Despite sharing common integrationist ideals, the EU and Asean operate as distinct political creatures. The notion of finalité politique is, of course, an absolute non-starter in Asean’s worldview. The EU’s supranationalist strands, though besieged of late, stand awkwardly at odds with the kind of fluid intergovernmentalism pedestaled by Asean states. Take their doomed region-to-region FTA negotiation, for example.  From the start, the EU and Asean had viewed each other on an equal footing as complementary economic partners (Andreosso-O’Callaghan 2009). Yet they scuppered to reach an agreement. Why?

While Brussels (meaning to say: the European Commission) commands exclusive competence in trade policy and can, therefore, speak for EU member states in unison, Jakarta obviously does not have the luxury of speaking for the remaining nine Asean capitals in matters of external trade. Dismayed, EU negotiators indirectly pinned the inertia to the absence in Asean of an institutionalised negotiating machinery. Perhaps more crucially, over-ambition uncloaked Asean’s unpreparedness to sign a sophisticated FTA with the EU due to the former’s developmental heterogeneity and fierce opposition to tabled chapters on intellectual property rights, fair competition, and government procurement.

Although the proto-FTAs with Singapore and Vietnam show that these differences can be overcome bilaterally, the EU must now confront at least two things. The first relates to prickly issues concerning the mutual liberalisation of sensitive sectors, such as agriculture and public procurement. Will trade openness trump (pun intended) parochial interests that are averse to bargaining away sovereignty costs, especially given the highly defensive stature of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and protectionist sentiments in agri-dependent Asean countries? We know this is no easy feat considering the legislative trains for the Singaporean and Vietnamese FTAs have taken an average of eight years to reach the ratification stage.

The second snag exposes a brutal tension in the EU common commercial policy. Considering that the EU weds trade and development objectives vis-à-vis less industrialised markets, how will Brussels justify shifting towards mutual trade liberalisation when most Asean states already benefit from its unilateral trade preferences?

If we follow the theory of political trade dependence, southern beneficiaries may elect to prematurely open their markets to northern patrons to ‘lock in’ their preferential status and access to rich-world markets (Manger & Shadlen 2014). Whether or not this is a Faustian bargain still puzzles economists today.

In Asean, the EU offers varying levels of trade concessions to Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The first two risk losing their special status on account of looming EU trade sanctions against alleged human rights and democratic backsliding there. Due to policy innovations introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, this codified politicisation of trade conditionalities even in non-trade areas should not surprise anyone since the EU sees and markets itself as a community of norms and values, which often leave Asean governments suspicious of hoity-toity political opportunism by—dare I say—former overlords.

Noli me tangere

In subverting Spanish colonialism, José Rizal’s twin fin-de-siècle novels Noli me tangere and El filibusterismo are possibly Southeast Asia’s best forgotten naturalistic literary articulations of indio/subaltern resistance to western imperialism. Then, as now, do Rizalian ideals not reverberate through newfangled, though perhaps not entirely defensible, assertions of self-governance, as ‘unruly’ Asean states detest the kind of normative blackmailing often brandished by the powers-that-be in Europe and America? 

Doesn’t the following script sound all too familiar by now? Toe the line, or else — we’ll pull the plug on foreign aid, we’ll suspend your special access to our markets, or we’ll abandon whatever positive obligations we are so ‘altruistically’ discharging to help you get out of your ungovernable misfortunes

In its record across Asean, the EU itself tends to stand by normative ideals, though not always, over politico-economic gains. Recall when its forerunner had failed to upgrade the 1980 Asean-European Communities Cooperation Agreement due to human rights issues in the region during the 1990s (Robles 2008). Recall also when the EU blacklisted Burma/Myanmar from its generalised system of preferences (GSP) and imposed tough economic sanctions against the military regime in 1997 (Moeller 2007).

Not long ago Brussels initiated parliamentary proceedings with the view to withdraw its most preferential duty-free and quota-free concessions from Asean’s least developed country (LDC) exporters due to the anti-opposition crackdown in Cambodia and the anti-Rohingya minority repression in Burma/Myanmar. The paradox here is that, by imposing trade sanctions, the EU would effectively  cripple millions of workers whose livelihoods ultimately rely on export-dependent sectors that supply to EU markets by the billion euros.

Curiously, trade policy elites in Brussels seem unfazed by the documented civil rights abuses presided over by the ruling one-party regime in Vietnam, thereby leaving the FTA with Hanoi by far unmolested. Save official expressions of condemnation here and there, the EU has done nothing to suspend the Philippines’ GSP+ status, even as thousands of dead bodies piled up under Duterte’s wrath on illicit drugs. Still, Manila may risk being on the cusp of EU trade sanctions in light of a renewed European push to investigate extra-judicial killings there via the UN.

To what extent do we detect neoliberal interests dictating EU policy here? How does this ambivalent drive to penalise some and not others in pursuit of civilian and supposedly altruistic ends capture the EU as a ‘conflicted trade power’ (Meuner and Nicolaïdis 2006)? Can we ever reconcile the EU’s logic to externalise its normative values with Asean’s sensitivities against foreign intrusions, if not neocolonialism?

The emperor has no clothes!

Anyone interested in case studies belying the ‘Fukuyamaistic’ end-of-history triumphalism should look no further than Asean. Is Asean’s prized principle of nonintervention not just a smokescreen to mask authoritarian tendencies from discerning outsiders, even as its charter avows ‘to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms’? Does it amount to what an Oxford scholar derides as ‘mere “organised hypocrisy” – sovereignty when it suits’?

Naturally the EU views the formation of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights in 2009 and the adoption of the Asean Human Rights Declaration in 2012 as important regional developments. Yet critics caution that Asean’s key motive in installing a region-wide human rights body is not meant to religiously protect and promote human rights, but rather to elude public scrutiny and criticism from its external partners (Muntarbhorn 2012).

In his ruthless policy against drugs and fetishism to reinstate capital punishment, Duterte seems to reject the emancipatory Rizalian ideals of freedom and humanism and upend the small-l liberal social contract in post-Marcosian Philippines. In no uncertain language Malacañang has rebuffed all EU and US official development assistance packages to cocoon itself from international pressure to protect human rights and civil liberties.

Do we not see similar cracks revealing the limits of political democratisation in, for example, Sen’s Cambodia and Suu Kyi’s Burma/Myanmar?

Illiberal politics aside, Asean remains technocratically open for business — after all, what are those 1.000+ special economic zones peppered across the region for, if not to strategically snap up foreign capital? 

Unsavoury political establishments in a number of Asean capitals make life more difficult for Brussels. Is there not a sort of Orbánism in Southeast Asia: states defanging democratic institutions, but embracing economic openness to fuel the region’s industrialisation movements?

Muddling through —

A fact of life for middling and small states in Asean remains how to mediate and moderate external influences through what Beeson (2003) calls ‘reactionary regionalism’. There is no denying that a triumvirate of Chinese, Japanese, and American interests jockey for influence in the region’s international politics. 

Small wonder, then, that Asean sometimes gives the EU the political cold shoulder. Non-invitation to formally join the East Asia Summit, an Asean-centric strategic regional agora where major global powers are represented, understandably frustrates the foreign policy brass in Brussels, although that may end soon. For now, it is clear that the EU must soothe the region’s legitimate concerns regarding possible European overrepresentation in the forum.

The long-standing maritime tiff between Asean states and China also uncovers the kind of suasion the EU projects externally: normative power over realpolitik. Although the EU’s economic and shipping interests in the contested waters are clear, Brussels rightly refrained from ‘rocking the boat’ when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled three years ago in favour of the Philippines and against China’s nine-dash line policy. While the US and Australia openly called on China to heed the arbitral ruling, the response from Brussels did nothing of this sort, as potential EU engagement relates more to shaping international governance frameworks on maritime security and resources.

The inchoate interregionalism between the EU and Asean does not sound a death knell for what can be effectively achieved by both partners. Because it supports the notion of ‘Asean centrality’ and an ‘Asean-led regional architecture’ in East Asia, the EU itself tacitly agrees that it is ultimately in Asean’s hands to shape or strain the direction of their interregionalist ambitions. Although Brussels and Jakarta will continue to agree to disagree over the issue of human rights, there is ample space to collaborate on international governance issues, even if that means the new EU leadership would pursue in practice an ad hoc interregionalism in parallel with bilateral initiatives.

Two strategic policy areas immediately stand out: climate change and counterterrorism. As advocates of the Paris Agreement, the EU and Asean find mutually beneficial preferences in mainstreaming clean-tech and low-carbon solutions in all sectors, especially energy generation and manufacturing. Relatedly, given Asean’s predominantly coastal topography, the emerging concept of ‘blue economy’ offers collaborative opportunities to share best practices on marine governance aimed at striking a balance between blue growth and climate resilience.

The Marawi crisis (2017) and Jolo bombing (2019) in southern Philippines demonstrate ISIS infiltration in Asean and bare the region’s vulnerability to international terrorism. As global security partners, EU and Asean governments stand to gain from beefing up joint counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing initiatives where common consent and interest can be found. That the EU welcomes Asean’s ‘enhanced involvement’ in its CSDP activities is a step in the right direction.

In pursuit of these and other international governance goals by the EU and Asean, the challenge forward is clear: how to translate joint ambitions to effective actions through existing interregionalist dialogue mechanisms and other fit-for-purpose outfits, such as ASEM, ARF, and APEC.

To paraphrase a worn-out truism: The devil is in the details (and delivery).


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