Friday, October 12, 2012

Transatlantic Cooperation Dream in Asia 
By Emanuele Scimia

In his farewell address to Europe, outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao left his mark. Speaking to the European top brasses on September 20, in a closed-door summit in Brussels, Wen once again called on the European Union (EU) to lift its ban on arms sales to China. The EU has been preventing its state members from exporting weapons and arms technology to Beijing since the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square bloodbath, when then Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping authorized the crackdown on pro-democracy and anti-corruption protesters.
The European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, has always expressed her opposition to the EU arms embargo, which she considers as a major obstacle to the Brussels' bid to expand security cooperation with China. Words which are part of a pantomime, as the arms ban is in reality being circumvented. Only in 2010, indeed, several EU countries sold Beijing defense equipment worth US$282 million, the EUobserver reported on September 20.

While Baroness Ashton dreams of developing EU-China strategic ties, the United States and
Japan are intent on sabotaging any potential step in that direction. Washington and Tokyo are pressing Brussels so that it keeps the arms embargo on the Middle Kingdom going. In addition, over the past months US President Barack Obama's administration has been urging the EU to
join in a common effort towards the Asia-Pacific.

The US decision to increase its political, economic and military posture has prompted a debate about the possible Europe's comeback in that region. Some European foreign affairs pundits expressly advocate the launch of a transatlantic partnership in the Pacific Rim.

In this regard, Brussels and Washington released a joint statement on July 12 - on the fringe of
the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) - calling for a more stringent coordination in Asia on diplomatic, security and trade matters.

Such a prospect was recommended a month earlier in a study by the European Institute for Security Studies (EUISS). After interviewing about hundred European and American foreign policy experts, the EUISS reached a conclusion that the potential for cooperation between the US and
the EU in the Asian-Pacific region should hinge on a sort of division of labor, whereby Washington "could lead on transparency on military build-up and mediation in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation", while Brussels "could offer leadership in promoting human rights and engaging regional actors on global governance issues".

The EU leadership is well aware that the global balance of power is shifting to Asia and that, for instance, European commercial interests could be damaged by a permanent crisis between China and Japan. Supporters of the "Look-East" policy in Europe have criticized Brussels' silence on the Sino-Japanese row over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islets, much as its inability to maintain a minimum of visibility in the region.

Visibility or no visibility, the impression is that there is no room for the European Union in Asia-Pacific, at least at the moment. This is due to both the current distribution of power there and the divisive nature of European foreign action. EU state members still pursue a go-alone strategy
in Asia, and Germany's drive toward China (as well as countries like Vietnam) epitomizes that

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited China in August, she stressed that "negotiations" and not "confrontation" should settle trade disputes between EU countries and the Chinese Red Dragon. However, Merkel's stance diverges quite a lot from that of the EU Commission and the United States, which are both challenging Beijing's dumping and protectionist policies. It is worth noting that earlier in September the EU Commission opened an investigation into alleged dumping of solar panels by Chinese manufacturers, while the US government filed a case at the World Trade Organization (WTO) against China's auto and auto-parts subsidies.

With this backdrop, it is unclear how the fractious European Union might have a say on the inter-Korean nuclear standoff, the maritime borders disputes in the East and South China Sea or China-Taiwan's cross-Strait relations. The EU has tried in vain to carve out a more prominent role in Asia over the past years. In July 2011, for example, EU representatives met with leaders of an umbrella group of Burmese ethnic parties in Thailand. Back then, the United Nationalities Federation Council (UNFC) urged the EU to broker a political solution to the long-standing conflict between Myanmar's central government and Burmese armed ethnic groups, but the mediation came to nothing.

There are also worrying signals that the EU common foreign policy is crumbling even in its neighborhood, as the "Safarov Affair" has recently demonstrated. Ramil Safarov is an Azerbaijani soldier who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2006 by a Hungarian court for killing in 2004 an Armenian colleague, Gurgen Margaryan, during a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) training program in Budapest.

The Hungarian government extradited Safarov to Azerbaijan on August 31 and immediately afterwards the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pardoned him. The move drew a strong condemnation from the EU, which a few days earlier had earmarked US$25 million for reforming Baku's justice and migration systems.

The Safarov Affair has shown up the limits of the European Neighborhood Policy when it comes to dealing with oil-rich countries like Azerbaijan, whose authoritarian regime is tolerated in Brussels for its strategic importance as an alternative source of energy to Russia - with its Neighborhood Policy, the EU tries to extend political, economic and security relations with neighboring countries to the east and south.

At a time when many European states are struggling to keep their public accounts in check, it would appear that the EU had better gain a leading regional dimension, focussing primarily on Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus, rather than embarking on a groundless Asian adventure.

Europe risks miscalculation on the idea of exporting the transatlantic scheme to the East Asia with the purpose of revitalizing the original one along the Atlantic Ocean. From this point of view, strategic overstretching would be the first and foremost danger.

If anything, there is a widespread conviction across Europe that the EU's legitimate ambitions to deepen its relationships with fast-growing East Asian nations should be driven by an effective common trade policy. European countries hold vast economic interests in the Asian-Pacific region and the resulting interconnection could be a vector of EU-China political engagement. And this whether or not Brussels will openly start exporting arms to Beijing.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and geopolitical analyst based in Rome.

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