It may not be the most subtle dig at Trump the world has ever heard but Commissioner Malmström’s statement that “as a mood of protectionism takes hold in some places, the EU looks to its friends in Asia more and more” was also another sign that the EU sees improvement in EU-ASEAN relations as being one of it’s key external policy aims. To this end, the recent Singapore FTA has been held up as the poster boys for the improvement in relations between the two blocks and has been seen as a gateway to other deals. For the EU, the ASEAN states offer potential markets of 643 million people, with growing economies and potentially similar security interests. Relations with both the block as a whole and bilaterally between the EU and ASEAN members are being strengthened; with FTA negotiations ongoing with Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
However when it comes to international relations, all that glitters is not gold. In the Philippines President Duterte has instituted a policy of extra-judicial killings, there has been a clampdown on opposition parties and civil society in Cambodia and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. This has caused considerable concern for the EU and has led to increasing questions about the suitability of some South-East Asian countries to participate in European programmes such as the Generalised System of Preferences and the related Everything but Arms. The continued role reserved for the military under Thailand’s constitution of 2017 is also a significant worry for the European Union. Despite the fact that those of a more optimistic persuasion would highlight the country’s 21 constitutions or charters since 1932 as evidence that the current political arrangement may be a fairly temporary state of affairs, the EU has suspended FTA negotiations until a true civilian government is restored.
Even in its relations with countries where human rights conditions are improving, other difficult issues have had a tendency to crop up. Agricultural and Environmental issues are also causing serious concern and this creates tension in otherwise relatively positive relationships. The decision of the EU parliament to ban the use of palm oil in biofuels has been met with cheers from European environmentalist who have long pointed to the considerable body of evidence that Palm Oil is responsible for the destruction of biodiversity, increased CO2 emissions and the abuse of indigenous rights. However for Malaysia and Indonesia it is “crop apartheid” and is viewed primarily as a protectionist measure to protect soy and rapeseed oil producers. It is hardly surprising that the backlash from these two states has been swift given that around 11% of Indonesia’s and 4.8% of Malaysia’s exports come from palm oil products. This makes any employment harming slowdown in production economically difficult and politically impossible.
The shifting geopolitics of the region also creates challenges, China does not often share the European Union’s qualms over human rights, though it must be kept in mind that the PRC is also well aware of the potential risks of climate change and increasingly takes environmental issues seriously. However the real change in the game has been the arrival of the Trump administration. The White House may not care for open trade, especially when it competes with American products; but it also doesn’t care that much about extrajudicial killings abroad. Anyone who has seen the video of President Duterte crooning “you are the light” to Donald Trump will understand how powerful this ambivalence can be.
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