2022 EU-ASEAN Summit: Unprecedented, Historical and Forward-thinking on an Agreed Common Background

2022 EU-ASEAN Summit:  Unprecedented, Historical and Forward-thinking on an Agreed Common Background


Ambassador (p) Gheorghe Savuica *


A thorough analysis of the first summit between the EU and ASEAN member states, which was held in Brussels, on December 14, 2022, meant to marking 45 years of diplomatic relations between the two Communities, will lead to the acknowledgment that such an apex event was not only much welcome but also necessary. Provided the complex and dangerous international and regional recent developments and the necessity to clarify the positions with reference to their own engagements and how to proceed to the next level after the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership signed in 2020, as a result of an assiduous diplomatic, political and economic efforts, it becomes obvious that the EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit was a necessity both for the EU as well as the ASEAN diplomacy. The Summit confirmed that both EU and ASEAN, having quite a good amount of similarities and common targets, need each other from many angles of cooperation, which could assist maintaining peace and understanding in a tumultuous world. A stronger and further more developed partnership between the two Communities will certainly serve as a much needed leverage of equilibrium in the geostrategic rivalries in both Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Chaired by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, country which also holds the ASEAN Chairmanship for 2022, the EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit represented a real opportunity to reaffirm the commitment of the two Partners to their 2020 Strategic Partnership, which assumes an even more poignant importance, to work towards enhancing prosperity, promoting security, strengthening resilience, and improving sustainable connectivity in the context of an increasingly complex and tense geopolitical landscape and considerable risks to supply chains and energy security, both regionally and globally. Most certainly, the EU-ASEAN commitment is based on international law, the mutual interest of the two Communities and the sincere cooperation on issues of common concern and the principle of sovereign equality.

According to the President of the European Council, Charles Michel"You (ASEAN) can count on the European Union; two years ago we raised our relationship to the level of strategic partnership and believe that what happened in this period was the right choice. (…) The EU and ASEAN have a lot in common and they are the two most advanced regional multilateral organizations in the worldand we are happy to work together to deepen our relationship". On the same positive note, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, noted that “Today our strategic partnership is still more valid since we are from opposite parts of the world and our destinies are linked. (…) The war that Russia has unleashed has created a shock in the prices of food and energy and all of us have been hit.”

In a press-statement granted previous to his participation at the EU-ASEAN Summit, the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, mentioned, in the same note of optimism, the desire to further deepen the EU-ASEAN trade: “Today we are meeting with our Southeast Asian partners to improve our trade relationship.” Indeed, Romania is a strong supporter of consolidating the EU-ASEAN ties.

In his statement, the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, shared the optimism of the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The Cambodian official expressed his “belief that our cooperation will be further deepened” and decried the “development of worrisome situation”, noting that “geopolitical rivalry has threatened the international order”. At the same time, Prime Minister Hun manifested his “hopes for a Free Trade Agreement (…) That work has to be done as quick as possible”. By underlying this hope, the Cambodian Prime Minister, in fact, expressed one very important expectation of ASEAN on behalf of the EU.

Following the hand-over ceremony of November 13, 2022, Indonesia has assumed the duty of ASEAN Chair. The President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, pointed out in his opening speech that “One thing is for sure, there might be many, many miles that divide us but there are much more values that unite us. For 45 years now indeed, ties between the European Union and ASEAN have grown stronger and stronger. And today, our strategic partnership is more relevant than ever. Because if we literally stand at the opposite sides of the world, our destinies are linked more than ever before”. He further underlined that “Both the European Union and ASEAN have multilateralism in our DNA.We have strong economic ties. We have a similar outlook on the Indo-Pacific. This Summit gives the opportunity to discuss how we can join forces even more to achieve our shared goals”. A release by the Cabinet Secretariat of Indonesia on the participation of President Joko Widodo at the EU-ASEAN Summit, underlined that the Indonesian Head of State “called for equality as a principle of ASEAN and European partnership”.

The Summit was concluded with a constructive, comprehensive, and productive EU-ASEAN Joint Leaders’ Statement. In fact, the DOCUMENT COMPRISES THE AGREED POLITICAL BACKGROUND FOR FUTURE PROJECTS, AS WEEL AS FOR ADOPTION OF JOINT POSITIONS ON THE MATTERS OF COMMON INTERESTS. It is the mirror of clear approaching between the European Union and ASEAN, both communities having interest to be present in the region of each other with a clear and agreed approach, particularly in the current complicated political and security circumstances.

The robust structure of the EU-ASEAN partnership is sustained by several undertakings of the two partners, such as mutual respect for the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, equality, non-interference and political independence of all nations, holding a shared view of the Indo-Pacific region as one of dynamic growth and opportunities, but also of security challenges, growing engagement between ASEAN and the EU on a broad range of traditional and non-traditional security and defence-related issues, EU’s commitment to support the open, transparent and inclusive ASEAN-led regional architecture, EU’s support for ASEAN-led mechanisms, determination to continue a vital economic cooperation, with the EU as the third largest trading partner and second largest investor of ASEAN, which will promote a sustainable and inclusive trade and invest, reaffirmation of the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety, and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS, recognition of the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity, and sharing a fundamental commitment to the rules-based international order.

Moreover, according to the Joint Leaders’ Statement, the two Communities recognised “the common strategic interest of holding regular leaders level engagement between ASEAN and the EU, and looking forward to a decision on regular Summits in 2023”, which clearly signals the great potential both EU and ASEAN see in their future cooperation. The comprehensive dimension of the pillars of cooperation detailed in the Joint Leaders’ Statement (ranging from Peace and Security, Economic Cooperation and Trade, Connectivity, Digital Transition and Narrowing the Development Gap to Sustainable Development, Environment, Climate Change and Energy, COVID-19 Pandemic and Regional and International Issues) as well as the sheer size of the Statement (16 pages) further stress the particular importance of the EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit for both parties.

During the Summit, the most urgent, and some of them extremely dangerous, international and regional matters have been analyzed, and, at the same time, the two Partners expressed in the Joint Statement a common position, as much as their national or grouping stands permitted. In the context, the reference is made to the war in Ukraine and the crisis in Myanmar. In some analyses one can spot a low tendency to emphasize the differences or hesitations between the two Partners as far as these two urgent and dangerous matters are concerned. In fact, the core of the matter is found in the statement on both cases with a vibrant voice by stressing that the most important elements are to realize the risks and damages, and to find solutions. It has been considered absolutely necessary by the Summit to pinpoint that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.

The two Partners also expressed their concern over the surge in the DPRK’s intercontinental ballistic missile testing and ballistic missile launches, and the continuing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

It is equally important to underline that during the Summit, the two Partners also discussed the cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and found out that there is a solid similarity and complementarities between the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy (EUIP) and the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP.)Both strategiesaiming regional stability, security, prosperity, and sustainable development.

Starting with 2023,according to the EU-ASEAN Joint Leaders’ Statement, the two Communities will act to put into practice the agreed initiatives and to complement the programmes and goals identified in the Plan of Action to Implement the ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership (2023-2027), with a view to strengthen the ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership. Meanwhile, they remain focused on certain key areas such as strategic partnership, global challenges - with a particular attention on climate change and protecting the environment - and commerce. On the occasion of the Summit, the EU pledged to mobilize a 10-billion-euro fund for investments in the area of digitalisation, green transition and infrastructure.

From the Joint Statement is coming out the possibility for European Union to join the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus and the observership programme of the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Groups on Peacekeeping Operations, and on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, subject to these mechanisms’ respective enlargement processes. So far, EU is partner only in Asia Regional Forum (ARF). At the same time, EU bilateral trade agreements with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand have chances to be signed as soon as possible. EU has signed such agreements with Vietnam and Singapore. A future ASEAN-EU FTA was reaffirmed “as a common long-term objective”.

It is worthy to understand that after the EU-ASEAN Joint Summit, the European Union has gained an even more solid ground in Southeast Asia, and ASEAN has gotten an undynayed position in Europe as partner of EU.This positive development will have as well a stimulating effect on the projects of Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM).

Based on the success of this year of the EU-ASEAN Joint Summit, this format could be even more useful in the future if it will become a yearly event. It has to be realized that, after all, this year Summit did not succeed in solving all aspects of the relationship between European Union and ASEAN. The international situations and their regional connotations are far way from being predictable. Obstacles and complications may appear.

However, the joint statement came at a complex time for both Europe and Southeast Asia, and could be interpreted as a safety belt against unforeseen events, theories, and actions of any kind.

Indeed, the new development in the EU-ASEAN reflects the complex dynamic of the global affairs in the current decade. While trade seems to be one of the most important aspects of the EU-ASEAN Summit, both parties have acknowledged the nefarious consequences of the supply chain disruptions during the pandemic and, publicly or behind closed doors, share the same concerns with regard to the security of the global supply chain. In this regard, a closer cooperation could result in a more secure global supply chain, which in turn will be mutually advantageous. Certainly, the advantages for the ASEAN countries would reside in an improved access to the EU market as well as an increased foreign direct investment on behalf of the EU in the South-East Asian economies. For EU, ASEAN represents its third largest partner outside Europe, after the US and China. As market economies, unlike command economies which are similarly part of the global supply chain, EU and ASEAN represent excellent partners for “an open, free, inclusive, non-discriminatory, transparent, rules-based multilateral trading system”, as both sides affirmed in their Joint leaders’ statement.

As far as Romania is concerned, for sure, Bucharest will support a more consolidated and success-oriented EU – ASEAN partnership, having the potential to offer its position as a gate in and out, through Constanţa Port, of the trade between the EU and ASEAN, apart from invigorating its own excellent traditional relations with the ASEAN member countries.

The solidity of the relationship between European Union and ASEAN resides and it is based on the bilateral relations between the members of the two Communities. The stronger is the bilateralism, the stronger becomes the multilateralism. In both organizations the existing consensus principle (technically a veto) is decisive. History as well as the current developments show that sometime it is difficult to reach the consensus or, which it is worse, some members may try misusing it to push forward a unilateral decision with damaging effects for the organisation.

Certainly, the Summit has been a successful political forum, being held in a friendly atmosphere based on the already accepted and very well respected principles of equal treatment and mutual respect. Now the EU-ASEAN cooperation has been surely upgraded, signaling the opening of a new and more promising level of relationship and understanding leaving behind any possible historical former doubts or lack of credibility about the West-East rapports.

It is for these reasons that the 2022 EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit should be regarded – despite a few diverging views – as unprecedented in both its scale and scope, historical in its relevance and forward-thinking in its approach based on an agreed common background.

* As a career diplomat with over four decades of diplomatic service, a specialist on Southeast Asia and ASEAN, speaker of Bahasa Indonesia, Russian and English, His Excellency represented Romania as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Indonesia and Pakistan and Chief of Mission to Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cyprus, Finland and Estonia.

Ambassador (p) Savuica is a former Director of the Asia Pacific Division and former Director General of the Asia Pacific, Near and Middle East, Africa and Latin America Department of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He published multiple articles, thought-pieces and commentaries reflecting his views on current dynamics in International Affairs and the ongoing developments related to the greater scope of Europe Asia relations. He authored several major chapters in edited volumes on Romania’s Foreign Policy, published by the Romanian Academy.

In 2011, Ambassador (p) Savuica has received the "Grigore Gafencu" Award on behalf of the Academy of Romanian Scholars (Academia Oamenilor de Ştiinţă din România). His Excellency is also a lifetime member of the Society of Asian Civilisations, Islamabad, and Institute for Maritime and Strategic Studies, Jakarta. He is the receiver of the prestigious Excellence Award on behalf of the Faculty of International Business and Economics, Bucharest University of Economic Studies.

Ambassador Savuica has established the Romania - Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2008. He is also the President and Founder of the Romanian Institute for Europe-Asia Studies (IRSEA).

Ambassador (p) Savuica is a graduate of Moscow State Institute of International Relations. A former athlete, he received numerous national and regional accolades as handball player, skier and self-defence fighter. Ambassador Savuica is married and has two daughters, one granddaughter and one grandson.