The EU's role in Asian Security

5 December 2005

The European Policy Centre held a Policy Dialogue on The EU’s role in Asian Security, with keynote speakers Tomasz Kozlowski, Head of Asia Task Force, Policy Unit at the Council of the European Union; Zhiwen Tang, Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the European Union; Cheng-Yi Lin, Research Fellow, Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, Taipeh, Taiwan; Masako Ikegami, Professor and Director, Centre for Pacific Asia Studies (CPAS), Stockholm University, Sweden. Axel Berkofsky, EPC Senior Policy Analyst, chaired the meeting. A question and answer session followed. This is not an official record of the proceedings and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.

Axel Berkofsky opened the event by reminding the audience that the EU’s first-ever security strategy, adopted in December 2003, had envisioned a security role for Europe in East Asia, but was unclear about just what this would be. The EU has a full seat in the ASEAN Regional Forum, a multilateral body looking at Asian security issues. While this was an important regional institution, it did not deal with sensitive security issues such as the North Korean nuclear programme or cross-Straits relations. The EU was conducting a successful economic engagement policy towards North Korea, but had been less successful in dealing with Beijing’s demand for an end to the EU’s weapons embargo against China, imposed in 1989 following government repression of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

The EU’s role in the Taiwan straits had been limited to verbal calls for a constructive dialogue between China and Taiwan, but given its huge economic interests in East Asia, the Union should play a more active role in resolving strains in Taiwan-China relations. In addition to its so-called "hard security" initiatives in the region, the use of EU soft power in East Asia through trade, aid and other diplomatic policies was also important.

Tomasz Kozlowski said the EU had identified several strategic interests in Asia. Since East Asia was an important part of the global system, developments in the region had a direct impact on the world. The Union had a broad approach to security in East Asia, with the focus on preserving peace, strengthening security, promoting a rules-based international system, encouraging regional integration, and working for democracy and human rights. East Asian contributions to helping achieve these goals served the interests of the EU and the entire world.

Mr. Kozlowski said the Union had a major direct economic interest in East Asia, including in areas such as trade and investments. The two regions had a common interest in preserving an open trading system, eliminating weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and combating terrorism. Security and stability in East Asia was a pre-condition for the region’s economic success and was also important for promoting the EU’s economic interests. Without stability in the region, it would be much more difficult to address global challenges.

Europe had to be pragmatic in its policies towards East Asia because, for historical reasons, it did not have much say on security issues in the region. No EU Member State had a military presence in East Asia or any military alliances with the region’s states. However, the EU’s economic presence and unique experience of post-war reconciliation gave it weight.

There was growing awareness among EU Member States that the Union needed a more coherent and focused security policy in East Asia. As a first step, the EU had developed a strategic dialogue with the United States focusing on East Asia. Strategic dialogues had also been set up with Japan and China, allowing the two sides to discuss all issues which are important for one or both partners. The EU wanted to improve its profile and visibility in the region by establishing better channels to convey messages and listen to partners.

Mr. Kozlowski said the EU was focusing on the following issues:

  • East Asia and the EU global agenda: The Union wanted to engage East Asian on issues such as environment, climate change, conflict prevention, and global peace support missions. It was very positive about the rise of China and wanted to help the country to become a more important player on the international stage.
  • The EU wanted to use its influence to promote harmonious and cooperative relations between key actors in the region, including Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea.
  • The EU was engaged in East Asia’s regional security architecture and wanted to help the emergence of strong regional institutions. The EU decision to deploy a peace-monitoring mission in Aceh in Indonesia could provide lessons which could be used for the resolution of other crises.
  • Cross-Straits relations were another area of key importance to the EU: the Union had a "one China policy" and believed that the dispute with Taiwan should be resolved through peaceful means.
  • As regards North Korea, the EU was not part of six-party talks, but has been very active in contacts with South Korea and was continuing to provide Pyongyang with humanitarian aid, although development aid had stopped. Once the nuclear issue was solved, the EU would become more active in the country.

Zhiwen Tang painted a picture of the security situation in Asia, saying that most of the countries in the region believed economic development was the main priority and that state-to-state relations were stable overall. Also, bilateral and multilateral security dialogues and cooperation mechanisms in the region were in good shape.

Among the many major dialogue mechanisms and platforms were organisations such as ASEAN, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the Asian Regional Forum (ARF) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In addition, the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme might evolve into a permanent security arrangement.

However, hotspots also existed in Asia and included the denuclearisation process in North Korea and Iran, threats from religious extremism terrorism and non-traditional threats including piracy, drugs, and bird flu. Asia was also marked by unbalanced development, with a very wide gap between rich and poor countries.

Mr. Tang said the EU could take part in some security mechanisms and dialogues, but cautioned that since the Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) was still new, the EU role in East Asia would be limited. However, it would grow in the future, with countries in the region drawn to the "charm of EU soft power".

He also urged the Union to end its arms embargo against China, saying it was a legacy of old times which did not match the new strategic partnership between the two sides. Lifting the ban would not lead to an increase in EU arms exports to China because Beijing was focused on developing its economy and did not need more arms imports.

Cheng-Yi Lin said China was rapidly emerging as the key actor on the Asian stage and was active in the region’s security fora. Asian countries were talking about how to deal with a rising China. "We do not have any experience in handling a rising China; we are in the process of learning."

Mr. Lin pointed out that the US, Japan and Taiwan were strongly opposed to any changes in the EU’s weapons embargo against China. In taking its decision, the Union must take account of several criteria, including China’s human rights record, tensions in the region, and the security of Taiwan and Japan. The EU had been more cautious than the US on issues like freedom and democracy in China. "We would like to see more dialogue with China to reduce tension and ensure a peaceful settlement of the cross-Straits dispute," said Mr. Lin.

Masako Ikegami cautioned that the Chinese military threat to Taiwan was serious and not bluff, and that China-Taiwan relations required pro-active conflict prevention. China was engaged in a growing military build-up and had deployed several hundred short-range missiles targeting Taiwan. Beijing’s focus was on ensuring a rapid modernisation of its weapons as regards both quantity and quality, and its top priority was to improve the quality of Chinese weapons systems by acquiring dual-use technology. This was one reason why it was participating in the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.

If Europe ended its arms embargo against China, Beijing would not try to buy more EU weapons, but would copy European technology and quickly indigenise it to improve its weapons. China wanted access to sensitive dual-use technology rather than to buy large quantities of arms.