A podcast about Europe, Asia relations with Mr Gunnar Wiegand, managing director for the Asia Pacific at the European Union’s External Action Service.
Shada: Hello, everyone, and welcome to EU Asia Talks, a podcast about Europe, Asia relations in this rapidly transforming world. I am Shada Islam an independent analyst and commentator based here in Brussels, and it is my pleasure to host these podcasts. Our conversation today is with Gunnar Wiegand, managing director for the Asia Pacific at the European Union’s External Action Service. Hello, Gunner. Happy Lunar New Year and many thanks for joining us for this first podcast of 2022.
So, Gunnar, you’re very well-known across Europe and Asia. Actually, you’re also well known in the United States, in Russia and in Central Asia because you worked on those regions before taking on the Asia portfolio in Asia. You’re known as the leading architect of the EU’s expanding relationship with the region, as well as a determined and a very active “construction worker” who with his team is out there actually building this partnership almost brick by brick. And these days, when we’re on Zoom, link by link. But it is also because of your willingness to go beyond the traditional conventional diplomatic circuit of government and government meetings and to engage you, engage with journalists and think tankers. And that’s exactly what you’re doing now. We have 30 minutes or so to take a look at EU Asia relations at the start of 2022. Let me start by asking you about this relationship and how it’s evolved over the years when I started writing an EU Asia ties more than 30 years ago, the relationship was still in its infancy. Asia was rising, yes, but relations between Europe and Asia were still about development aid and about trade. Today, things are very different, aren’t they?
Gunnar: Let me first say that in terms of our historic links, in terms of our culture and civilization links Europe is very much linked to Asia. And we have seen this recognition of Europe across Asia in our many new ways of engaging with Asia. And therefore we are not newcomers. We have been throughout our history present in Asia and with Asian partners. But of course, the relationship type changes and yes, after the colonial times, after the times, which were characterized by the experiences of world wars, we are now in a very different relationship. This is a very different time, and this is a time where Asia is very dynamic and where Europe is very interconnected with Asia in so many ways. And just to give you a few figures, if you put Europeans and Asians together, this makes about 68 percent of global trade. 60 percent of global population. 65 percent of global GDP. 75 percent of global tourism. All these links are [tremendous Beyond this, if you look at our ever more interconnected economies, the trade which goes through the South China Sea is about 20 to 25 percent of our total trade in the world. That shows to you how important a concept like the free and open Indo-Pacific is for Europe with its highly open and interconnected economy.
But how to fight climate change successfully? We can become ever greener as Europeans, but we account for eight percent of world global greenhouse gas emissions. China accounts for twenty eight percent, India accounts for 12 percent. So we have to work with our partners in Asia, in America to make the difference. And lots of the research, a lot of the innovations are coming from East Asia, from Southeast Asia. We want to tap into this research and innovation huge, not just potential, but huge capacity which has developed and interact with our relative innovation possibilities. And let me finish by pointing at the pandemic, and we will perhaps go more into detail into this. But one thing has become clear to every single citizen in Europe and in Asia that the fight against the pandemic is the fight where we have to work together on everything from the cure to the prevention, and we have to make sure that we help each other at times of need. There is no end of this pandemic unless it is winced in all of our societies.
Shada: So, going on, I guess you’ve talked about the long history of this partnership. You said Europe is not a newcomer to Asia. Asia isn’t a newcomer to Europe either. You’ve talked about how we’re in the post-colonial phase of relationships were interconnected. So many economic links, cultural links and of course, climate change and the pandemic have made us even more close to each other. So my obvious follow up question to you really would be, you know, when I’ve been looking at this relationship, it’s always been about the economy and how trade and investments are open. It’s been now actually about geopolitics and quite a lot actually about the rise of China. Would you say that there is a better understanding between Europe and Asia at the moment? Would you say that there is a better relationship? Would you say that there’s a better understanding between Europe and Asia at the moment than there was in the past?
Gunnar: Would it be fair to say that is the rise of China? Of course, it is a tremendous rise of China, but it is also tremendous the rise of many other Asian partners over the last generation. And certainly, it’s not just because of geopolitics that we look much more to our Asian partners, but it is also because of the success of the Europe integration project that our Asian partners look much more after Europe. The tremendous success of this project of peace and prosperity, and of pooling together our key competencies in order to have a huge single market, the largest integrated market and the largest area of peace in an area which has known war after war, which also has allowed us to be at the forefront of many technological innovations that has made that the EU is number one partner in trade and investment for most of the partners in Asia, and that starts first and foremost indeed with China and India. So, overcoming the legacy of wars and creating this space where people are free and where people are also free to settle, to work, where they want and where people are free to express themselves. These are reasons why, in fact, there are so many people that want to come to EU, so many migrants, so many researchers and so many students. Europe is a pole of attraction, the pole of soft power.
And even though in terms of military projection, Europe is not where many of the think tanks would like us to be. But there is a global projection that has a global role for this European Union, which is one which is very much looked for by all our partners in the Asia-Pacific space, who traditionally may have looked at Europe only as a trade or a development partner. So, this goes, of course, together with the huge economic success in fighting poverty successfully in China, but also the massive reconstruction after the wars in Japan and Korea. The transformation of so many ASEAN countries economically, but also politically. And it means that we are much better partners for each other as part of this huge global trend of ever greater interconnectedness. And I leave you with one simple picture of that huge ship which got stuck in the SUEZ Canal in March of last year, the Ever Given ship and its billion dollar cargo stuck. And what happened? We got into a major bottleneck with ships on both sides of the Suez Canal who wanted to go to Europe or to Asia, and we got many factories who got very nervous because the storage was not there anymore, with many of the key components for production. This gives you an idea to which degree we are linked with each other every day, every hour, every minute.
Shada: So right, I mean that moment when the ship was stuck. The chains of supply chains were disrupted, and there was quite a lot of concern on both sides of the Suez Canal, actually. That’s true. That showed how interconnected we are. And so, you said it’s not just about geopolitics, it’s not just about the rise of China. The region, per se, is ascending. And you’ve said Europe, of course, is not just an economic power, but also soft power. So let me come to the question of what we’ve lived through for the last two years: Covid 19 pandemic, the quarantines and lockdowns, economic supply chains being disrupted, and we haven’t been able to travel as we used to. And you, I remember, we’re always on the move. Asian capitals, Central Asian capitals just got going there and shaking hands and being the diplomat that one has to be. How has COVID 19 changed your relationship with Asia? Are you now focused more on health than before? Are you visiting again?
Gunnar: To my great regret, I’m traveling much, much less. We are only allowed to travel for so-called essential travel, so when there’s an absolute need to go somewhere. So I have been not very often out of Brussels, but I am every day in other forms of interaction with partners across the region. So this is the new Zoom, but it’s not only Zoom. There are many different ways of connecting this new virtual world. I think my last trip was in May last year to Indonesia, and I have been also to Russia and to the US later on that year. But many of our meetings actually take place through our virtual links, and that is fine as long as you know your counterparts. And if you don’t know your counterparts, it is much less easy to talk, but also to talk informally and very importantly, to negotiate. Negotiations become very complex through screens, so I can only hope that we will soon get over this again. Yes, we have been able to do business continuity. Thanks God. We have been able to address many issues, but it is not business as usual in terms of the health focus.
Apart from the first major effort, which was a consular effort to get hundreds of thousands of Europeans back to Europe across the region, the biggest effort, I think, has been the development and production of vaccines. And you will be surprised to hear, but Europe is the largest producer and major exporter of vaccines. It has exported, in fact, more than half of its production, both in terms of commercial exports, but also in terms of contributions to the COVAX facility, where Europe is the largest donor. And we are now pushing hard, and I hope we will succeed to negotiate at the World Health Organization a new specific treaty for the pandemic so that a situation like this one will be much better prepared in terms of who does what, when, how. In addressing such a major outbreak where every single country, every single citizen is affected. And what this has brought forward, of course, is to show this tremendous fragility of our highly sophisticated, interconnected societies and economies. Our global value chains and the need to reduce that fragility and to become more resilient. And that is nowhere [more evident than in the sphere of health.
Shada : So last year, you had so many meetings online, virtually with so many different Asian countries. And I was wondering this year, what are your plans? Are you holding virtual summits with all the key powers and beyond in Asia?
Gunnar : We certainly hope to move towards real physical meetings again this year. It is already the third year that we are now dealing with the effects of the pandemic. To briefly outline the program as you seem to look for it in terms of the political level encounters, we will have a very important meeting in just three weeks time in Paris. The first European Union Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum, where some 30 partners from the region will be invited to come together at ministerial level and we will focus on security and defence,
Shada: Let’s talk a little bit more about the Indo-Pacific Summit that’s coming up, Gunnar because it’s going to be in about three weeks and of course, every single nation in the world, including the EU. So the EU has its Indo-Pacific strategy, but so do member states. So just give us a kind of a preview of the key issues on the agenda of the summit and the Indo-Pacific Summit in Paris in three weeks.
Gunnar: Let me clarify, it’s not a summit, it is a foreign ministers forum and we are bringing for the first time ever together here partners from East Africa and the Gulf, South Africa, with partners from South Asia, South East Asia, East Asia and the Pacific. So that’s quite a unique situation. We also have invited several regional organisations from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, and this will be co-chaired by the host Foreign Minister Le Drian. We, together with High Representative Borrell will involve also other members of the Commission, according to the key areas which we are discussing, which I mentioned already. Security and connectivity and sustainable development, global challenges. Our strategy has, of course, more areas such as prosperity, such as the area of ocean governance and fisheries, but also we have areas which are important and growing in research and innovation. But we cannot cover everything in one event. We will work on the rollout of this strategy very closely with partners. And that’s also why this strategy has been called the EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, and this is therefore an offer for cooperation and will be different with each partner, according to the possibilities and the will of each side. We expect that this event, in particular the participation of India, of Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, to name a few, there will be many more, of course, coming. And there may be also an interesting outcome in terms of declaration of some partners coming together with Europe on the principles for data protection. Given that this is a key issue in the ever more important digital world, which we are all connecting in. So it is a visibility event about the concrete rollout of the Indo-Pacific Strategy which is, of course done first and foremost by the EU’s interaction with each and every one of our partners.
Shada: So very complex puzzle in a sense, a mosaic with different parts of the Indo-Pacific coming together for this foreign ministers’ meeting. Now we’ve talked a lot about EU Asia relationship, and you mentioned security several times and I just wanted to ask you what kind of a security role does the EU really aspire to and what will make the EU per se collectively different and significant amid all of these different initiatives that your member states have been taking and which obviously Indo-Pacific countries are doing as well? In other words, what will the EU be doing differently compared to its individual member states?
Gunnar: Well, first, let us recall that the European Union is resident actor in the Indo-Pacific region because of one of our member states, having territories, having citizens about one and a half million and having military bases. And before the Brexit, you could say this was the case of two of our member states. So, we are a regional actor, and that means also there are significant territories and huge exclusive economic zones concerned, which are European in that space, sometimes overlooked. Therefore, we have security interests already, but I also pointed at the
That is one of those contributions and that helps in the fight against drugs, for example, or piracy, and to mobilize the Coast Guards. The other activity which we are doing this would have to be to help increased security cooperation not only in maritime security but also on cyber security and on the counter-terrorism and improved cooperation on peacekeeping in a wider program on enhanced security cooperation, where we have a number of pilot partners across the region, from Japan and Korea to India and also Indonesia and Vietnam and also Singapore and beyond this. I would expect that the Council is possibly taking a decision in the near future to also establish a so-called maritime area of interest in the Northwest Indian Ocean. And this would mean that we could have so-called coordinated maritime presence between national naval assets. This is not, I want to underline it’s not a mission under the Common Security Defence Policy, as we currently have, and we intend to continue to have in the Horn of Africa. And that is the EUNAVFOR Operation ATALANTA, which will continue and is a concrete, permanent EU naval presence at a critical point that is close to Somalia in terms of piracy. But it is a different presence. It is a presence where our nations do cooperate when having their own naval assets in the area so that there is an enhanced combined impact through their presence.
Shada: Let’s talk a little bit about geopolitical competition. I know you said this is not the only name of the game, but it is very much so at the moment that the US and China are engaged in what Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU, has called heated competition in the region. Now it’s quite interesting that Indo-Pacific countries ASEAN, especially and Europe have both said that they do not want to choose sides and do not want to fall into the binary trap between Beijing and Washington. How is the EU navigating these rather treacherous waters?
Gunnar: Well, the European Union is the European Union, and that means that we believe in autonomous choices, and we have come together as nations pooling our sovereignty in order to have a much bigger combined weight in the world of Europe. And that combined weight should offer us the possibility to also have relations with many partners around the world who don’t want to go into binary choices and who want to have good relations representing their own interests, but also their own values with a variety of other parties. Now that means that Europe stands for not only free trade and investments, but also stands for seizing as many opportunities as possible for economic and sectoral cooperation and the promotion of rules based international order as opposed to a geopolitical sphere space. And I think you have seen this very clear expression by Europe. Just a few days ago, when the foreign ministers decided about our position as regards the new tensions around Ukraine and where it was very clearly said that the concept of geopolitical spheres of interest is gone. This is a concept of the past, and it doesn’t belong to the 21st century what we say for Europe and for our neighbour, Ukraine, we say also for the rest of the world.
So we don’t believe in geopolitical spheres of influence. And I can say the great majority of nations who seek closer relations with the European Union don’t believe in this either but are sometimes forced. We are offering therefore possibilities for deeper cooperation in many areas to many countries in the Indo-Pacific space. And let me add, this does not mean that we are equidistant between China and the United States, who are clearly in heated contest or intensive competition, as it is said in Washington or extreme competition. We are very clear that we are democratic societies, we are market economies, exactly like the United States and most of our members are also direct military allies of the United States. So it is no question who we are closer to. But this does not diminish our offering of possibilities for ever closer relations for partners who do not wish to be put into binary choices.
Shada: Right. So the EU offers the world in a sense, another view of how you can view the world. So it’s not just based on geopolitical spheres of influence, and I think a lot of countries would agree with the European Union that this is a big, big world and one can choose partners as one wants based on values and interests, as you said. So this is a different view of the world than what we’re getting from many countries. Let’s talk a little bit about ASEAN. Forty-five years of this partnership elevated now to a strategic partnership. But ASEAN is manifestly struggling, isn’t it, with human rights issues within its own membership, and I’m talking specifically about the situation in Myanmar now in the past when such a thing happened, European Union relations with the country, with the region were actually then suspended, but this is not happening now. There’s a new view of looking at how we cooperate with ASEAN. So your comments on how Myanmar is changing and how ASEAN perhaps is changing in response to what’s happening within its membership?
Gunnar: But it is a proper day to discuss this item, even though we will not have the time to go into depth into this, but this is one year since the military coup against the government, which had been democratically elected second free election in Myanmar. We have just come out with a major statement very clearly expressing the EUs´ position with regards to this military regime and also other partners have done so. We are, of course, appalled by the situation which we see in Myanmar, where there is more and more violence and more and more massive, massive human rights violations. No possibility for media for free reporting about all of this. Lots of the ethnic conflicts have started again, and we have a major phenomenon of internal displacements and also more and more refugees into Thailand. We have a major negative impact also on ASEAN. You have referred to this because the principles of human rights and democratic governance are also enshrined in the ASEAN charter, but as is also the principle of non-interference into internal affairs. So there is a situation which is not easy for ASEAN to deal with, and certainly ASEAN is also split over the question of how to best deal with Myanmar. We try to be as helpful as we can, both in close contact with the ASEAN special envoy, who will now be the foreign minister of Cambodia since they are holding the chairmanship, but also the UN special envoy. We do not wish indeed, as you rightly have identified, to see Myanmar having a negative impact on our overall relationship with ASEAN. We continue to develop our strategic partnership with ASEAN, as you have pointed out, and we will have this summit later this year and connectivity, the green transition, the digital transition -these are the top priorities which we want to deepen further and will do with concrete steps.
Shada : Thank you so much for all your frank answers. But I do have to ask you a final or maybe final two questions. What do you see as the main challenges in the year ahead? We’ve talked about, you know, how uncertain and [unpredictable these times are, whether we’ll be doing virtual summits or we’ll be meeting in person. What would be the impact of COVID 19 on our economies? Of course, the green transition. So what do you see from your point of view sitting here in Brussels as the main challenges ahead in 2022?
Gunnar: In foreign and security policy, you always have to be ready for everything. And last year, many were surprised by what happened with Hong Kong. We should not be surprised with any other developments and certainly we need to have a very close look at the situation around Taiwan as we also see that this is an issue which goes to the “core interest” of the leadership of Beijing, and we need to very carefully look at that. We need to have a clear eyed view of the huge difficulties in Afghanistan, in Myanmar, but also on the Korean Peninsula. I mentioned already the South China Sea, so there is no lack of significant challenges in terms of security and of stability. And at the same time, human security in the context of the health challenge, but also in terms of human rights continue to be of major importance. And this, I think, is therefore something which beyond all the summitry and all the good relations which we are establishing and more and more areas of economic and sectoral cooperation and political dialogue needs to be on the on the radar screen.
Shada: So ready for everything. And you’ve talked about those tensions China, Taiwan, Afghanistan, which I think would have a separate podcast on. Of course, we’ve talked about Myanmar and, as you say, human rights and human security in peril in many parts of the world. So let’s just end on a hopeful note. And let me [ask you about the opportunities you’re looking for.
Gunnar: I think that is the very fact that we decided about two key policy frameworks. One is the Indo-Pacific, and we have been asked by all our member states to do this as an enabling policy framework, which has a positive message of cooperation as opposed to confrontation for our partners across the region. But also the Global Gateway in terms of accelerating, deepening and rendering much more concrete our connectivity policy, which had so far been limited to Europe and Asia and is now also covering other parts of the world. It is not just a question about mobilizing overseas development aid, but it is first and foremost a question about mobilising investments, private investments and public investments. The necessity to have the financial sector here intimately involved [as much as the private companies. So I think these are huge opportunities, and I should add the other top priority, which is, of course, the implementation of what was agreed at COP26 in Glasgow on climate change, where we have the first Green Alliance with Japan, possibly something with Korea where we have where we are significantly intensifying in very concrete terms our work, with China, with India, with Asian partners, with Australia. So we got it right in terms of the fight against climate change for a sustainable green transition and to prepare then also for COP 27 in Sharm-al-Sheikh. So this is the third area I would like to add.
Shada: Gunnar, Thank you so much. It’s been really such an informative discussion. You’ve really looked at the comprehensive view, if I may say so, of the European Union’s relations with Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific. So the relationship that was based essentially initially on trade and development now expanded and deepened to include security, connectivity, health, the green elements of the transition, green energy and also digital, and all these new partnerships that the European Union and Asian countries are seeking and negotiating. So really, you are ready for everything, and it’s going be a very busy 2022, a very busy year of the tiger. Thank you to all of you for joining us. And see you soon. Bye bye.
Source: Delegation of the European Union to Vietnam