I am grateful that you all accepted our invitation to discuss developments in and German cooperation with ASEAN and South East Asia. With the clear aim of strengthening our bonds, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has tasked me with developing new initiatives with you. So I couldn’t be more grateful that such a distinguished group has gathered here in Bangkok this week!
This is our third “regional Ambassadorial conference” this year – and while the other two, on EU affairs and Transatlantic relations – need certainly no explanation for why they matter to Germany, the choice of our third and final conference – on ASEAN – might not be as obvious at first glance back at home.
So which factors are at play for Germany and the EU to take such a particular interest in South East Asia?
Let us first look at the political landscape: ASEAN finds itself in a crucial spot given the power struggle between the US and China. This has two effects. On the one hand, ASEAN is being courted by all its strategic partners – the big players in the region – but on the other hand, there are signs of rifts in ASEAN itself that put its cohesion at risk. The latter threatens ASEAN’s centrality – namely, its ability to act independently.
In the years to come, ASEAN will need a lot of resilience in order to prevail and to extend its regional impetus. I am convinced that there can be no resilience without cohesion and centrality. To Germany and to the European Union, ASEAN is a natural and extremely valuable partner in order to uphold the rules-based international system.
When we look at economic interests, there has been ever-greater fascination with this region, that is, with its economic success and the determination shown by its people, especially since the rise of the “tiger economies” in the late 90s. And with growing middle classes in most countries who are connected to the digital world, the perception of South East Asia as a young and dynamic region of the future still holds true. Looking at trade and business, it is in our interest to cooperate closely with South East Asia, as the region can help to guarantee our own future by offering access to huge growth markets and giving German businesses opportunities to diversify.
Economic prosperity and security are closely intertwined. Looking at the map, it is quite obvious that all trade with all of Asia depends heavily on stability in South East Asia, and especially in the South China Sea. However, the security environment gives us reasons to worry. In recent years, China has consolidated its position in the South China Sea and expanded its military footprint. An arms race is under way among the great powers. So what is South East Asia’s position in all this? We observe an interest in diversifying international relations beyond the traditional heavyweights and thus see an opportunity for us to enhance our engagement and jointly shape globalisation with ASEAN and South East Asia.
So far, our interests concur to a large degree. Now, let us check where China and the US figure in our set of interests. Of course, we want our South East Asian partners to have constructive and balanced relationships with China. This holds equally true for us, by the way. At the same time, and in view of new global rivalry on who will emerge as the superior system, we want to offer smart alternatives.
Even against overwhelming economic strength, there is room for autonomous, sovereign and transparent decisions on which rules are to be followed and which standards and norms are to be applied. It is our goal to offer the “rules-based way” and to win over partners with these alternatives. This “rules-based way” includes regional integration, which we clearly advocate, as the EU Global Strategy confirms.
When it comes to the US role in Asia, their appetite for rules-based solutions seems rather limited, unfortunately. And do we even see a pivot to Asia? No! What we see instead is a head on collision of the US and China. Not exactly what the architects of the pivot had in mind.
Allow me to sum up. A stable, economically prosperous South East Asia with open societies is clearly in our interest. This will only be possible if the region maintains economic and political independence, without renouncing a constructive relationship with China. Further regional integration and connectivity will play a positive part in achieving this goal.
Let me now explore what we can achieve together and which instruments we have at our disposal to support each other. I see four main fields of cooperation:
The European Union and ASEAN are made up of medium-sized powers and smaller countries, which naturally gain international influence by joining forces. When the EU and ASEAN team up to support a rules-based order, we represent roughly a seventh of the global population and a GDP of about 20 trillion euros. Together, we should identify joint initiatives to achieve this goal. Our interest cannot be a bipolar world, which leaves all of us with little real choice in the end.
We are well aware that this requires a stronger footprint in security and defence policy. We Europeans are working on this. As a general line, let me emphasize that we firmly believe in freedom of navigation as a core principle of the international order and in the law of the seas.
Our societies’ prosperity is based on free trade and full integration into world markets. It is imperative for us that the full opening of markets for goods, services and public procurement be accompanied by binding commitments to respect workers’ rights, uphold environmental standards, protect intellectual property and implement market-based competition rules. We should defend this regulatory framework. Germany will further advocate an EU-ASEAN-Free Trade Agreement and more investment, which should not be a one-way street!
Here in South East Asia, with natural disasters, which are often triggered by climate change, gaining in frequency and intensity, there is another obvious topic for cooperation: the protection of our environment and the fight against climate change. The impact of climate change on peace and stability is becoming ever more obvious.
That is why Germany has defined the nexus between climate change and security as one of the priorities for its membership of the UN Security Council. We aim to strengthen the UN system’s capacity to address these climate-related security risks.
Our cooperation comes with a certain set of values and we stand for open societies. Obviously, South East Asia is a very heterogeneous region and the principle of non-interference is a pillar of ASEAN. At the same time, democracies are thriving and civil society is strong in some places. We will continue to encourage and foster these principles that are crucial to our way of life.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am certain that we all see the huge potential of greater EU-ASEAN and German-ASEAN cooperation – otherwise why would we all be here and do the jobs we do. So let us use this conference to review the instruments we are using in order to get there. We have a set of very interesting panels and speakers lined up for later today and tomorrow and I look forward to discussing these topics in greater depth.
But before that, it is my great pleasure to invite ASEAN Deputy Secretary-General, Dr Tuan, to the stage.