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Myanmar still keeps Europe wary of Asia

By Verghese Mathews - posted Thursday, 20 October 2005

There is an obvious excitement in Asia today in anticipation of the emerging regional political architecture and the shifting of the centre of gravity from the US and Europe to Asia.

It is far from clear at this stage how this nascent process will unfold and what shape the new Asia will eventually take, but there is little doubt that whatever the eventual outcome, a re-energised and ascending Asia will directly or indirectly have a profound effect on the region and the rest of the world.

Hence, the obvious imperative on the part of both the big and small players alike to ensure that the emerging political architecture is one in which there will be space for all of them. No surprise, therefore, that countries both within and outside the region are positioning themselves to influence the outcome of the process in Asia.


Within the region China, India, Japan, Korea and the ASEAN countries, in subtle and not so subtle ways, are all working towards influencing the process. Likewise, important actors outside the region, like the US and Australia among others, are making their individual or co-ordinated moves.

Meanwhile, there are several attendant initiatives about to take place, like the East Asia Summit just down the road, the ASEAN Charter on the horizon, and fresh attempts around the corner to enhance the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum to provide for its greater involvement. These initiatives are a natural and legitimate progression in the right direction and ought to be welcomed.

What is unusual, however, is that in the midst of all these exciting events there is the most surprising and glaring absence of a meaningful EU engagement. Bluntly put, the EU is punching well below its weight - and deliberately so - in a region with which it has always had strong traditional ties. The casual observer may be misled into believing that the EU as an entity is no longer interested in Asia. After all, it is common knowledge that the ASEM and ASEAN-EU ministerial meetings are not well attended by the European side.

It would further appear, rightly or wrongly, that at best its present Asian policy tends to be a reactive one. A recent example was when Indonesia needed assistance in Aceh. The EU responded generously, and many lives were the better for it.

Why then is the EU isolating itself? Why the reluctance to be more involved, why the sulking?

It is indeed a sad commentary that the EU's lack of proactiveness in ASEAN matters - and by extension all matters Asian - is because of the involvement of Myanmar in both these equations. The situation in Myanmar is of course serious. It ought to be of concern. But the really serious question is: should Myanmar be the sole lens through which the EU views a rising Asia and determines its engagement with the region as a whole?


We must not have any delusions here. If Myanmar, for example, gave up its right to be Chairman of the ASEAN Standing Committee, it was not because of ASEAN 's persuasiveness or the EU's pressure. Myanmar did so because it was in its national interest to do so. Full stop.

That does not mean that ASEAN and the EU must abandon their respective campaigns to assist the people of Myanmar and for the government to move forward. We must individually and collectively do what we can. By the same token, it is pertinent to recognise that even within the EU there are perceptible differences over how relations with Myanmar ought to be handled. Increasingly there are those within the EU and ASEAN who take the enlightened position that bilateral problems should not be dragged into the multilateral arena. This is really the point.

An example of how confusion between bilateral and multilateral approaches can be an unnecessary impediment to relations between regional groupings was clearly demonstrated at the ASEM Economic Ministers' Meeting in Rotterdam on September 16-17, 2005.

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First published in The Straits Times on October 15, 2005.

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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