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A Study in Distraction: Europe’s Pivot to Asia

The pivot to Asia has been the signature item on President Obama’s foreign policy agenda, but the United States is hardly the only country to reassess its international relations with an eye towards Asia. The European Union has also been engaged in a “look east” in preparation for what some have termed, the Asian Century.

Despite a consensus from scholars, there has been a large amount of debate as to whether the United States has become overstretched diplomatically, focusing less attention on the Asia-Pacific region. In short, the Obama administration has become diplomatically distracted. Recently though, commentators have also expressed concern at a similar lack of diplomatic focus coming from Europe.

Europe has a long history of involvement in Asia. Imperial powers held direct or indirect control over Asia during much of the nineteenth century; the last vestiges of colonialism only ended in 1999 with the return of Macau to Chinese sovereignty after being held by Portugal since the seventeenth century.

But overall, Europe has had fairly cooperative relations with Asia during the last half of the twentieth century.

As the growing importance of Asia became more apparent in the early 2000s, Europe intensified its diplomatic engagement with Asia. European heads of state flocked to the 2012 Asia-Europe Meeting summit in Laos. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy announced an “Asian semester” in 2012. H.R. Ashton also released a joint statement with then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, to show “the importance the United States and the European Union attach to this thriving region and its peaceful and dynamic development.” She also attended the Shangri-La Dialogue, a forum of Asian policymakers, for the first time in 2013.

But in the past few months, H.R. Ashton has had a diplomatic agenda much closer to home. Much of her attention has been occupied by the ongoing crises in Ukraine and in Syria. She has quietly been on the frontlines of both these diplomatic battlefields, limiting the amount of time she can dedicate to Asia. These issues are geographically close to the EU’s borders; though China is increasing its ability to project power, it’s still a long way from Europe.

These distractions are evidenced by Europe’s relations with Asia. Europe has still not managed to secure a seat at the Asian Defense Minister’s Meeting (ADMM) Plus. This meeting hosts ASEAN defense ministers in addition to representatives from the United States, China, Australia, and five other non-ASEAN states. To be excluded means that Europe has less of a say in the emerging security architecture of East and Southeast Asia, creating more space over which China and the U.S. can compete. Moreover, Catherine Ashton did not return to the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2014. These instances signal a decreased European focus on the region.

Ashton’s absence does not mean that Europe is altogether disengaged from Asia. Economically at least, Europe and Asia remain very much linked. China is Europe’s second-largest trading partner and a fast-growing export market for Europe. ASEAN is the third-largest trading partner and the EU is one of the largest investors in ASEAN countries. The EU has signed a free trade agreement with Singapore and is engaged in negotiations for other free trade agreements with Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand. Europe has strong economic links to Asia and these links are more likely to grow than to shrink.

The lack of diplomatic attention towards Asia could also be a strategic redeployment, rather than a result of a distracted diplomatic establishment. Stephen Walt notes that states form alliances (like the EU, or in his example, NATO) to balance threats. The U.S. puts so much effort into its rebalance towards Asia because China is threatening to become the dominant power there. The EU has no such aspirations, and so China poses less of a threat. Therefore the EU has less of an incentive to project power into Asia because Asia is a lesser concern, so the European Union may be making a conscious decision to redirect diplomatic capital towards geographically closer threats such as the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

Europe’s pivot to Asia appears to be in serious trouble, languishing from a lack of diplomatic involvement as senior EU diplomats are engaged elsewhere. But the EU’s economic links to Asia remain strong, and what appears to be a case of distraction, in reality, may be an intentional redirection as the European Union shifts its diplomatic attention to a more immediate threat.