[Column] The G20 in Bali, ASEAN, and the forgotten art of EU diplomacy

Sometimes there’s a glimmer of hope even amid geopolitical turmoil.

The back-to-back leaders’ meetings in the Indo-Pacific last week could have degenerated into another brawl between the so-called Great Powers.

They did not. Instead of tough-talk and dangerous sabre rattling, the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh and the G20 meeting in Bali — as well as other gatherings in the region — offered a troubled world some desperately-needed good news.

Here are five lessons learned.

First, diplomacy matters. For proof look no further than the US-China promise of a cessation of hostilities at the almost kumbaya moment in Bali between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, the US and Chinese leaders.

The fragile truce may or may not last into the new year. After all, the US still sees China as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge” — a sentiment Beijing reciprocates.

Still, efforts to put a brake on the start of a perilous new cold war deserve global encouragement.

Second, they may swagger and strut, but in a complex multipolar world even the big boys can no longer manage on their own.

Kudos therefore to Indonesian president Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) who, as G20 chair, managed last week’s high-stakes summit in Bali through patient diplomacy and consistent good humour.

Keeping to his country’s tradition of non-alignment, Jokowi got most of the G20’s squabbling members to agree to a summit declaration condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine — one of the biggest public condemnations of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who did not attend the meeting.

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No surprises then — except in Eurocentric Western mainstream media — that the quiet and unassuming president of the world’s largest Muslim-majority state has successfully and firmly established the G20 as the premier, inclusive multilateral governance forum.

Third, although no one would have guessed it by reading last week’s Indo Pacific headlines, the EU is not completely absent from the region.

Slowly but surely the bloc is upgrading its often shifting and sliding profile in the Indo Pacific — although much more remains to be done.

The EU is still not a member of the East Asia Summit, the region’s leading security forum, but Council president Charles Michel got a seat at the table as a special guest of the chair, Cambodia’s Hun Sen.

Macron gets on the guest list

French president Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, became the first EU representative to be invited as guest of host Thailand to the US-led Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum in Bangkok.

Fourth, geopolitics — just like time — waits for nobody.

The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy released in April last year promised more time, effort and money to get closer to the region.

But keeping up with the competition requires more than promises. Indo Pacific countries are being courted ardently by China and the US.

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British prime minister Rishi Sunak also boasts of an Indo-Pacific “tilt” in Britain’s post-Brexit global strategy.

The EU has upped its game with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea, “like-minded” members of the so-called Global West, which despite geography — and in some cases, culture and history — have aligned with the transatlantic stance on Russia and Ukraine.

However, lesson number five is that relations with ASEAN, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, need more oomph.

The EU has done free trade deals with Singapore and Vietnam but European “experts” on Asia have long talked down ASEAN as little more than a toothless talk shop.

The regional body, however, is central to security in the Indo Pacific and is likely to secure even more clout once Indonesia, which becomes ASEAN chair next year, makes good on its promise to take a tougher stance on Myanmar.

EU-ASEAN relations were finally “elevated” to a strategic partnership in December 2020 and trade and investments between the two regions are booming, with European businesses in ASEAN underlining their optimism about economic recovery in the region.

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In order to upgrade its Indo Pacific relevance, however, the EU must ensure that the summit with ASEAN in Brussels on December 14 does not descend into an unseemly squabble over how forcefully to condemn Russia.

The region’s concerns over EU green protectionism and fears that the war in Europe is worsening global access to energy, food and fertilizer cannot be ignored.

Equally importantly, as rival trade agreements proliferate in the region, the EU must step up efforts to clinch a free trade deal with Indonesia and re-open trade talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

With no quick decision expected on a region-wide EU-ASEAN free trade agreement — a key demand of EU business — Brussels must move forward on sectoral agreements with ASEAN on the green economy and digital, along the lines of the recent comprehensive air transport agreement (CATA).

It won’t be easy to rival America’s hard power in the Indo Pacific or to compete with China’s financial heft.

Given their different security and foreign policy priorities, it may also be difficult to get EU and ASEAN members to coalesce around a one-size-fits-all condemnation of Russia. A compromise will probably be necessary.

Indonesia’s handling of the G20 summit in Bali is proof of the power of quiet, persistent, and cool-headed diplomacy.

It is a lesson that many in Europe must re-learn.

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