Why I went to Jakarta and why the Indo-Pacific is important for Europe
We sometimes get the impression that Europe is egocentric and mainly focused on the crises in our neighborhood. However, we have big stakes in the Indo-Pacific and have been a major player there for years. Our partners are counting on us to work more closely together.
“If we want to be a geopolitical actor, we must also be seen as a political and security actor in the region, and not just as a development, trade or investment cooperation partner.
To start with, some basic numbers. The Indo-Pacific creates 60% of global GDP and two-thirds of global growth. It is the second largest destination for EU exports and is home to four of the EU’s top ten trading partners. About 40% of the EU’s foreign trade passes through the South China Sea, so Asian security has a direct impact on European security and prosperity. The EU is also the largest investor and provider of development aid for the Indo-Pacific. But if we want to be a geopolitical actor, we must also be seen as a political and security actor in the region, and not just as a development, trade or investment cooperation partner.
My visit had two main components: meeting the Indonesian leaders and visiting the ASEAN headquarters.
The EU and Indonesia have been long-standing and close partners for 30 years. We share common values and our bonds are strong, but there is a lot of untapped potential. Indonesia has 270 million inhabitants, rightly proud of their democratic transition. It’s a huge archipelago with some 17,000 islands and if you put it on the map of Europe, it stretches from Dublin to beyond Moscow. It has a fast growing economy, plays a key role within ASEAN and as a global player, and will hold the G20 Presidency in 2022 and the ASEAN Presidency in 2023.
I met President Joko Widodo, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and members of the Indonesian Parliament. In all of my discussions, I have been impressed by the clear goals the leaders have for the future of Indonesia and the region – and how much they want to implement them by cooperating with Europe.
Unfortunately, over the past three years our relationship has stalled due to a dispute over palm oil exports, but we cannot let these differences detract from our relationship. We are fully aware of the importance of palm oil production for Indonesia and its crucial role in lifting many Indonesian smallholders out of poverty. The EU is not anti-palm oil. We have not instituted any trade bans and the value of Indonesian palm oil exports to the EU has even increased by 26% in 2020 compared to 2019. We remain the largest palm oil export market. of Indonesia and the recently launched Joint Working Group will help all parties to better understand each other on sustainable palm oil production.
Of course, the fight against the pandemic and access to vaccines was another key topic. I was happy to highlight the EU’s strong record on vaccine multilateralism: we have supported COVAX to the tune of 2.8 billion euros, exported 240 million doses to 90 countries and we are working on building new vaccine production capacities around the world.
The EU supports Indonesia’s goal of becoming a high-income country by 2045, while achieving the 2030 SDG target. Our future CEPA / Free Trade Agreement will support this goal by generating more trade, more European foreign direct investment and jobs – no less than 5 billion euros of GDP could be generated each year from 2032 We will continue to build a partnership for green growth – without the EU erecting a green wall as some mistakenly claim.
Finally, security will be increasingly central to our cooperation. Indonesia is a force for peace and stability in the region and in the world. The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy fits perfectly with Indonesia’s political efforts and goals. Indonesia, despite certain problems, can be a model in the region when it comes to democracy, pluralism and tolerance.
“ASEAN is the core around which inclusive forms of regional cooperation are built. Regional integration is a way to safeguard our respective ‘strategic autonomy’ for both of us. ‘
The second element of my visit was ASEAN, a natural partner for us, given our shared commitment to rules-based multilateralism. Right now, ASEAN is much like the “swing state” in the whole of the Indo-Pacific where the United States and China put their weight. The ASEAN countries are united in their desire not to be cajoled by the strategic American-Chinese competition. They wish to diversify their partnership by moving away only from Quad or Sino-centric groups. ASEAN is the nucleus around which inclusive forms of regional cooperation revolve. Regional integration is a way to safeguard our respective “strategic autonomy” for both of us.
Last year, we turned our relationship into a strategic partnership. It was long overdue but very welcome because in a world of politics of power and widespread uncertainty, ASEAN and the EU should unite.
There are many areas where our cooperation is already strong. We have long been ASEAN’s number one development partner, but also its third trading partner and third investor. Our exports to ASEAN countries increased from € 54 billion in 2010 to € 85 billion in 2019 and our imports increased further from € 72 billion in 2019 to € 125 billion.
During my discussions with the Secretary General of ASEAN and his Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR), I stressed the EU’s desire to expand cooperation, in particular in the areas of green transition, sustainable connectivity and defense.
“The Indo-Pacific region is the future, but insecurity and tensions are increasing, threatening the order and balance of this dynamic region.”
I was also happy to have the opportunity to present the The new EU strategy over the Indo-Pacific to Center for Strategic and International Studies. To explain what we do and why – and where we want to go next.
The Indo-Pacific region is the future, but insecurity and tensions are mounting, threatening the order and balance of this dynamic region. And economic growth is based on openness, on stable and shared rules and on shared security.
I stressed that the EU’s interest is precisely this: that the regional order remains open and rules-based – and we can make a significant contribution to that. As I witnessed during my visit, this is recognized by our regional partners who see the EU as a trusted and reliable actor.
The ISEAS Research Institute in Singapore recently asked Southeast Asian thought leaders and policymakers who would be their most privileged and trusted strategic partner amid the growing rivalry between the United States. and China. Four out of ten respondents have chosen the EU!
The core message of our Indo-Pacific strategy is that the EU wants to step up its engagement and work with its partners to boost trade and investment, economic openness and a sustainable approach to connectivity. But we are also ready to work more on strategic and security issues, in particular maritime security. We are exploring options to strengthen the EU’s maritime presence in the vast Indo-Pacific area. And we will expand the EU Critical Sea Routes project from the Indian Ocean to South East Asia.
“When it comes to connectivity, we have a strong track record and know that our approach, that connectivity projects should be environmentally and fiscally sustainable, is what ASEAN and other partners want as well. “
To sum up, I come back from the region with three main thoughts:
First, the visit was a tangible way to show the EU’s political will to engage with ASEAN. That’s why I blocked my diary for four days and drove over 22,000 km. It was useful to discuss face to face and dispel misperceptions, whether on palm oil or vaccines and to present concrete proposals to deepen our cooperation.
Secondly, I am even more convinced than before that the EU must engage more in the Indo-Pacific. Not just on trade and aid, but also on security. In Europe, we are often too busy with ourselves and our neighborhood, and sometimes we have too little bandwidth left to develop relationships with countries that want more of us. However, the world will not wait for us to overcome our internal problems. We need to engage now and it is refreshing and positive to hear how much the EU is wanted and welcomed. Of course, cooperation has to be a two-way street. The more the cooperation is perceived as two-way, the more it will be sustainable in our respective political systems.
Third, we must step up cooperation to respond to the ongoing “democratic recession” around the world and the growing attacks on pluralism and political freedoms. Myanmar is the most dramatic case in Southeast Asia. I stressed that we expect leadership from ASEAN in this situation and that we are ready to support more regional engagement. I made it clear to the CPR Ambassador of Myanmar what Europe expects. Faced with the total refusal of the military leadership to engage in negotiations and growing repression, we are working to adopt a new package of sanctions to defend human rights. Not because we consider them to be European or Western constructions. But because these values and principles are universal. Many countries and certainly the people of this region share our point of view: they want to determine their own political future and see their rights protected.