Despite the fact that EU-Asia relations are expanding, and that Brussels is seeking an increasingly close relationship with the Asiatic continent much more need to be done in order to fulfill a comprehensive approach to the region. Recent foreign policy developments has highlighted once more the importance to have a strong policy toward Asia, that is a need particularly for United States. US President Donald Trump has said after meeting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jingping said that he (the Chinese president) gave him a history lesson on China and Korea. The US President said that Xi has explained the history of China and Korea to him. Trump asserted he told Xi he believed Beijing could easily take care of the threat of North Korea but “after listening for 10 minutes, I realised it’s not so easy”. Despite the quite naive and ridiculous statement by the US president, the possibility of US military action against North Korea in response to missile tests suddenly called back world attention on Asia.
As regards geopolitical influence, Asiatic continent is characterized by three main actors: China, Russia and United States. Washington has historically a strong and close alliance with Japan and South Korea, whereas the role played by Russia and China in the region is more hidden, and namely Beijing could be a country with some influence on Pyongyang. From this geopolitical perspective we can say that the EU has no particular role in the area, if not to follow United States politics. But on the other hand we have to remember that Asia is not just China, Korea and Japan. And that foreign policy is not just hard power and defense but also cooperation on economic and cultural side.
A strategy could be for the EU to start having a role in the region by approaching the continent from its closest parts, meaning Central Asian Nation, where traditionally there is a strong Russian influence. Thus the wider role in the region also pass through relations between the EU and Russia, that should be implemented in a constructive and not competitive way. In this sense it is very important EU High representative for common security and foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, first official visit to Russia scheduled on 24th of April. Mogherini tried to stabilize relations with Moscow, arguing that Russia was a huge neighbor that the EU had to learn to live with, but the deepening Ukraine crisis prevented any accommodation.
The EU High Representative will also visit China and India next week, other key partner to have a comprehensive policy toward Asia. The EU is deepening its strategic partnerships with China, India, and Japan and negotiations are well underway on new partnership and free trade agreements with South Korea and with south-east Asian countries. Asia comprises high-income industrialised partners and dynamic emerging economies but is also home to two thirds of the world’s poor. Development cooperation therefore remains high on the EU’s agenda with Asia, and more than five billion euros have been allocated to Asia by the Regional Asia MIP 2014-2020. And during the last years the EU has been successful in creating several institutionalised mechanisms for working and bolstering relations with Central Asian governments (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), including an increased presence on the ground. But the overall picture of the EU’s engagement in Central Asia is one of limited to no impact. While Russian influence on its neighbours will remain substantial, and maybe it should be so. It would be surely non positive to increase political competition between Moscow and Brussels in this area, furthermore in a period when the EU should concentrate its resources in a period of uncertainty.
Thus in its relationship with Russia, the EU should try to strengthen its role at first with is closest countries. In this way the approach could be similar but not comparable to the one of Eastern Partnership (EaP), the joint initiative involving the EU, its member states and 6 eastern European partners: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. And is exactly in this area that the EU policy toward is should concentrate, Eastern Europe and Asia. It is indeed here that the EU is stronger and it is not by chance that European policy caused some tension with Russian influence. So it would be impossible to aim at competing with Russia on other areas like Central Asia: the EU should concentrate its efforts on Eastern Partnership in Caucasus, Eastern Europe and at its borders, where still exist many problem and not only in Ukraine and Turkey.
A perfect example could be Moldova, a country at the EU border with Romania, where a new president is gradually aiming at shifting Chisinau euro-atlantic orientation. On April 14th, the Supreme Council of the Eurasian Economic Union, reunited in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek, offered the observer status to the Republic of Moldova, represented by President Igor Dodon. The decision was positively taken by Russia President Vladimir Putin, Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan and Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev, who was the chair of the meeting. Dodon declared that it is a “historical day” for Moldova, although later specified that the observer status does not provide membership and would not contradict to the Association Agreement between Moldova and the European Union. On the other hand the government still has an EU orientation and Brussels recently decide to unlock a macro-financial assistance grant of 100 million euro for Moldova provided that he make real efforts to reform the country. Thus a lot of work need to be done, starting from the closest neighborhood where it is pivotal to invest on economic development, stabilization, employment growth and, when possible free movement of persons. It is thanks to this effort that at the end of March 2017 Georgia could join travel visa-free to most EU countries, with Georgian officials cheering it as a “historic” achievement for the country’s nearly 4 million people.
In this situation the most rationale stance toward Central Asia would be to have a cooperative approach with Russia without renouncing to fundamental values. And on the other side strengthening the approach also toward China and India, as even EU high representative Mogherini visit could highlight. As two of the three biggest economies and leading traders in the world, the EU and China have a deep and comprehensive partnership. The EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, adopted in 2013, is the highest-level joint document in EU-China relations, setting out cooperation in the areas of peace, prosperity, sustainable development and people-to-people exchanges. The rise of China has happened with unprecedented scale and speed and has not only changed the country internally but has also given it more weight on the international stage. This presents major opportunities for EU-China cooperation, in particular in creating jobs and growth in the EU and in supporting China’s own economic reform programme. This wider approach could be applied also to India, Russia and other Asian countries, and is very useful in order to have a comprehensive policy in the region, building strong partnership aimed at implementing a collaborative and not a competition approach to Asia, where it is crucial to build bridges of economic partnership and not sources of new tensions.
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